The FBI solved a century-long mystery over the identity of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. While this already sounds like an episode of The X-Files, forensic scientists from the FBI really did lend a hand to archaeologists, who can now put a name with the severed mummy head.
Since 1915, researchers had struggled to identify a mummy head discovered in the ancient Egyptian city of Deir el-Bersha. The head was found discarded in the corner of a looted tomb and was believed to be either the head of provincial governor Djehutynakht or his wife. For decades, the mystery was left unsolved until scientists at the FBI got involved. Their findings were published in the journal Genes last month, with insight into how scientists may soon recover nuclear DNA from even the most damaged forensic specimens.
To identify the sex of the mummy, FBI biologist Odile Loreille used an advanced DNA sequencing technology. After drilling into a tooth extracted from the 4,000-year-old skull, she collected the powder and dissolved it in a chemical solution that was then run through a DNA copy machine. After checking the ratio of sex chromosomes, Loreille deduced that the skull belonged to a male.
“We never knew whether it was Mr. Djehutynakht or Mrs. Djehutynakht,” curator Rita Freed told CNN. Freed works at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), where the mummy head had been stored since 1920. She admits that the FBI is “a very unusual partner” when it comes to understanding ancient Egypt, but the agency wanted to test out its latest DNA sequencing technology.
“It’s not like the FBI has a unit – like an X-files unit – that just does historical cases,” Anthony Onorato, chief of the FBI’s DNA support unit, told CNN. “It’s that we’re actually trying to develop criminal procedures using historical items.”
As disappointing as it is to know that Djehutynakht’s story probably won’t be featured on an episode of The X-Files, the FBI’s involvement suggests that their DNA matching tools are more advanced than ever before. “If they can reconstruct DNA from a 4,000-year-old tooth, they can reconstruct it from just about anything,” Freed said.