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Mummies, it seems, are always in the news. Just days after a British team claimed, somewhat dubiously, that they had synthesized the voice of a 3,000-year-old mummy of the priest Nesyamun, a second group of British researchers announced their own study about a 2,600-year-old mummy of a woman named Takabuti in the Ulster Museum. Like the earlier study, this announcement made news headlines around the world. Using CT scans and DNA analysis, the researchers made a number of new findings about Takabuti’s life (they found that she had an extra tooth, for instance), violent death (she had been stabbed in the back), and mummification.
The news stories also announced that Takabuti’s DNA suggested her ancestry was closer to modern Europeans than Arabs. This last finding stands out for many reasons. For one thing, when we look at the details of the claim, it begins to fall apart. The geneticist involved in the study (Konstantina Drosou of the University of Manchester) refers to the mummy’s “genetic footprint,” H4a1, a reference to a specific mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) ancestry or haplogroup. Yet mitochondrial DNA represents just a single ancestral lineage — a single data point — among all of the tens of thousands for any individual. Mitochondrial DNA is passed along from mother to child. This means that, as a pointer to distant ancestry, it points to the genes of a single female ancestor out of many. For instance, take any person living today and trace their ancestry back 500 years. They would have had tens if not hundreds of thousands of ancestors living at that time. Mitochondrial DNA analysis, if successful, will identify the genes of just one of those tens of thousands of people. It is a huge leap to move from a single lineage to broad conclusions about ancestry being “European” or “Arab,” especially when these terms are used as monolithic ancestral groups — failing to take into account movements of individuals and groups throughout the last few thousand years.
That is not the only problem. Proving the European ancestry of ancient Egyptians — particularly of Egyptian royalty — has been a running goal of research on mummies for some 200 years. A century or two ago it was determined by measuring skulls and comparing physical features; now it is done through ancient DNA (aDNA). Throughout all of this, the methods have been scientifically questionable. Problems with aDNA studies are legion: small sample sizes, broad claims made from individual data points, and (not surprisingly) contradictory results. The failures of past race science should give researchers pause in the present, to consider that our current assumptions might also be flawed and troubled. And researchers should stop and ask why this question of European ancestry continues to be such a focus of primarily European research on mummies. After 200 years, the public would be forgiven for thinking that researchers really want ancient Egyptians to have been European, or even that researchers think Africans would not have been capable of producing the great monuments of the Egyptian past.
In a statement provided to Hyperallergic, the National Museums Northern Ireland, the organization that includes the Ulster Museum, wrote, “The museum takes its responsibility over the care of Takabuti very seriously, prioritising respect, sensitivity and ethical alignment.” The organization continued to say, “The current genetic results are part of a wider project that involves the museum, academics and Egyptologists.”
“The preliminary genetic analysis shows that Takabuti’s ancestors may not have always lived in Egypt,” the statement added. “We believe they confirm how diverse and complex Egyptian society was at the time. We do not suggest Takabuti was white and the evidence we have does not support such a conclusion. She was one person in a culturally diverse society.”
With the Takabuti announcement following the earlier mummy’s voice study so quickly, several Egyptologists and archaeologists publicly called for an ethical review of mummy research. Archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London focused on a central point: there was no indication of any peer review of the Takabuti research, either of its scientific claims or its ethics, which is especially notable considering that it involved work on human remains. David Tosh of the Ulster Museum, one of the scholars involved with the study, replied that the researchers had solicited second opinions on their findings before the University of Manchester and the Ulster Museum put out their press release making the announcement, but that full publication of the study (and detailed peer review) will follow. It appears that the institutions put out the press release before publication to coincide with the 185th anniversary of the unwrapping of Takabuti in Belfast. (Should we really be celebrating the anniversary of unwrapping human remains in this way?) Tosh noted the museum’s interest in ethical concerns, including wishes of modern Egyptians, having discussed such issues with an official of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities during their visit to Belfast last year. But is this enough?
If we listen to scholars, we often hear that the sensationalism and factual errors in popular understanding of history are the fault of the media. They suggest that journalists distort the findings of scholarship or aren’t interested in ethical issues. Yet, in the cases of the two recent mummy announcements — as in many others — we see that these problems start with the scholarship itself.
When I first saw the headline “Shocking truth behind Takabuti’s death revealed” circulating online I thought it was from a British tabloid, maybe the Express or the Daily Mail, not from a university press release. It is no wonder that news outlets focus on sensational aspects of scholarship or amplify dubious claims.
The vocal tract study was of dubious scientific value, adding nothing to our knowledge of ancient Egyptians: we did not need to this study to show that ancient Egyptians could produce the vowel sound “a” or “e,” and in any case (because of the changes in the mummy’s vocal tract after death and mummification) the study was not even successful in proving this. The Takabuti study, while adding to our knowledge of an ancient Egyptian, involved questionable race science. The truth is that scholars, publicists, and journalists all collaborate in providing poor understandings of the past and how we study it to the public.
These examples also raise another troubling question: Do scholars tailor their work to get media attention? This wouldn’t exactly be surprising, given the temptations for publicity and funding, but it would be a major problem. Scholars should publicize issues like ethics because they are important and shape our understanding of how we use the past; this shouldn’t depend on whether the media care. When we fail to discuss these issues, we teach readers and viewers that news stories about mummies are supposed to be lurid and sensationalist. When it comes to ethics, we tell them not to care.
But, in my own experience, audiences do care. As people who study and write about the past, we should take the time to encourage that interest, rather than choose the easy route of sensationalism. We owe you that much.