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Mummy wars: DNA experts now hold separate conferences about ancient Egyptians

This one’s for DNA buffs:

Enter the world of ancient Egyptian DNA and you are asked to choose between two alternate realities: one in which DNA analysis is routine, and the other in which it is impossible. “The ancient-DNA field is split absolutely in half,” says Tom Gilbert, who heads two research groups at the Center for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, one of the world’s foremost ancient-DNA labs.Unable to resolve their differences, the two sides publish in different journals, attend different conferences and refer to each other as ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ — when, that is, they’re not simply ignoring each other. The Tutankhamun study reignited long-standing tensions between the two camps, with sceptics claiming that in this study, as in most others, the results can be explained by contamination. Next-generation sequencing techniques, however, may soon be able to resolve the split once and for all by making it easier to sequence ancient, degraded DNA. But for now, Zink says, “It’s like a religious thing. If our papers are reviewed by one of the other groups, you get revisions like ‘I don’t believe it’s possible’. It’s hard to argue with that.”

- Jo Marchant, “Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh’s DNA,” Nature ( 27 April 2011)

Also

“Preservation in most Egyptian mummies is clearly bad,” says Pääbo, now at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthroplogy in Leipzig and a leader in the field.Ancient-DNA researcher Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino in Italy went so far as to test how long mummy DNA might survive. He checked a series of papyrus fragments of various ages, preserved in the similar conditions to the mummies. He estimated that DNA fragments large enough to be identified by PCR — around 90 base pairs long — would have vanished after only around 600 years

Yet all the while, rival researchers have published a steady stream of papers on DNA extracted from Egyptian mummies up to 5,000 years old.

Here’s the mummification process. Not quite like getting buried in silt from a landslide, as happened with so many animal fossils.

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