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FBI Solves The Mystery Of An Ancient Egyptian Severed Head

It has to rank among the less usual undertakings doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital had attempted: In 2009 they removed a molar from a severed Egyptian mummy’s head via an endoscope with grasping forceps they inserted through the neck. The tooth was a hopeful clue in a nearly century-old mystery—one that still wouldn’t be solved for years to come. The head was discovered in 1915 in Deir el-Bersha, south of Cairo, in a room built for a governor named Djehutynakht and his wife 4,000 years ago. It had been looted by grave robbers, and the identity of the head—was it Djehutynakht’s or his wife’s?—remained unclear. A DNA test could provide the answer, but no mummy of that age had given up usable, reliable DNA, and “the ancient DNA community had largely given up on the testing” of such remains, per a report in the journal Genes.

The molar was their best bet, and scientists tried and failed to get it to give up its DNA. Then, in 2016, the tooth made its way to the FBI’s Dr. Odile Loreille, a forensic scientist with a long history of working with old and ancient DNA; the New York Times reports she has identified Korean War victims, a 2-year-old who died on the Titanic, and the remains of two children of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. She managed to retrieve a tiny bit of powder—just 0.004 ounces, per LiveScience—from the tooth’s core, and the ratio of chromosomes it contained proved it was male DNA: Governor Djehutynakht. The Times sums up the significance: “In doing so she had help[ed] establish that ancient Egyptian DNA could be extracted from mummies.”

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