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Metagenomic analysis of Ancient Egyptian canopic jars


Rayo, Enrique; Neukamm, Judith; Tomoum, Nadja; Eppenberger, Patrick; Breidenstein, Abagail; Bouwman, Abigail S; Schuenemann, Verena J; Rühli, Frank J (2022). Metagenomic analysis of Ancient Egyptian canopic jars. American journal of biological anthropology, 179(2):307-313.

Abstract

Ancient Egyptian remains have been of interest for anthropological research for decades. Despite many investigations, the ritual vessels for the internal organs removed during body preparation—liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines, of Egyptian mummies are rarely used for palaeopathological or medical investigations. These artifacts, commonly referred to as canopic jars, are the perfect combination of cultural and biological material and present an untapped resource for both Egyptological and medical fields. Nevertheless, technical challenges associated with this archeological material have prevented the application of current ancient DNA techniques for both the characterization of human and pathogenic DNA. We present shotgun-sequenced metagenomic profiles and ancient DNA degradation patterns from multiple canopic jars sampled from several European museum collections and enumerate current limitations and possible solutions for the future analysis of similar material. This is the first-ever recorded evidence of ancient human DNA found in Ancient Egyptian canopic jars and the first associated metagenomic description of bacterial taxa in these funerary artifacts.
Objectives

In this study, our objectives were to characterize the metagenomic profile of the Ancient Egyptian funerary vessels known as canopic jars to retrieve endogenous ancient human DNA, reconstruct ancient microbial communities, and identify possible pathogens that could shed light on disease states of individuals from the past.
Methods

We applied ancient DNA techniques on 140 canopic jars to extract DNA and generate whole-genome sequencing libraries for the analysis of both human and bacterial DNA. The samples were obtained from museum collections in Berlin (DE), Burgdorf (DE), Leiden (NE), Manchester (UK), Munich (DE), St. Gallen (CH), Turin (IT), and Zagreb (HR).
Results

Here we describe the first isolated DNA from the Egyptian artifacts that hold human viscera. No previous work was ever conducted on such material, which led to the first characterization of human DNA from Ancient Egyptian canopic jars and the profiling of the complex bacterial composition of this highly degraded, challenging, organic material. However, the DNA recovered was not of enough quality to confidently characterize bacterial taxa associated with infectious diseases, nor exclusive bacterial members of the human microbiome.
Discussion

In summary, we present the first genomic survey of the visceral content of Ancient Egyptian funerary artifacts and demonstrate the limitations of current molecular methods to analyze canopic jars, such as the incomplete history of the objects or the presence of uncharacterized compounds that can hamper the recovery of DNA. Our work highlights the main challenges and caveats when working with such complicated archeological material – and offers sampling recommendations for similarly complex future studies, such as incrementing the amount of starting material and sampling from the less exposed parts of the jar content. This is the first-ever recorded evidence of ancient human DNA found in Ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and our results open new avenues in the study of neglected archeological artifacts.

Abstract

Ancient Egyptian remains have been of interest for anthropological research for decades. Despite many investigations, the ritual vessels for the internal organs removed during body preparation—liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines, of Egyptian mummies are rarely used for palaeopathological or medical investigations. These artifacts, commonly referred to as canopic jars, are the perfect combination of cultural and biological material and present an untapped resource for both Egyptological and medical fields. Nevertheless, technical challenges associated with this archeological material have prevented the application of current ancient DNA techniques for both the characterization of human and pathogenic DNA. We present shotgun-sequenced metagenomic profiles and ancient DNA degradation patterns from multiple canopic jars sampled from several European museum collections and enumerate current limitations and possible solutions for the future analysis of similar material. This is the first-ever recorded evidence of ancient human DNA found in Ancient Egyptian canopic jars and the first associated metagenomic description of bacterial taxa in these funerary artifacts.
Objectives

In this study, our objectives were to characterize the metagenomic profile of the Ancient Egyptian funerary vessels known as canopic jars to retrieve endogenous ancient human DNA, reconstruct ancient microbial communities, and identify possible pathogens that could shed light on disease states of individuals from the past.
Methods

We applied ancient DNA techniques on 140 canopic jars to extract DNA and generate whole-genome sequencing libraries for the analysis of both human and bacterial DNA. The samples were obtained from museum collections in Berlin (DE), Burgdorf (DE), Leiden (NE), Manchester (UK), Munich (DE), St. Gallen (CH), Turin (IT), and Zagreb (HR).
Results

Here we describe the first isolated DNA from the Egyptian artifacts that hold human viscera. No previous work was ever conducted on such material, which led to the first characterization of human DNA from Ancient Egyptian canopic jars and the profiling of the complex bacterial composition of this highly degraded, challenging, organic material. However, the DNA recovered was not of enough quality to confidently characterize bacterial taxa associated with infectious diseases, nor exclusive bacterial members of the human microbiome.
Discussion

In summary, we present the first genomic survey of the visceral content of Ancient Egyptian funerary artifacts and demonstrate the limitations of current molecular methods to analyze canopic jars, such as the incomplete history of the objects or the presence of uncharacterized compounds that can hamper the recovery of DNA. Our work highlights the main challenges and caveats when working with such complicated archeological material – and offers sampling recommendations for similarly complex future studies, such as incrementing the amount of starting material and sampling from the less exposed parts of the jar content. This is the first-ever recorded evidence of ancient human DNA found in Ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and our results open new avenues in the study of neglected archeological artifacts.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:04 Faculty of Medicine > Institute of Evolutionary Medicine
08 Research Priority Programs > Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems
Dewey Decimal Classification:610 Medicine & health
Language:English
Date:1 October 2022
Deposited On:09 Jan 2023 15:11
Last Modified:28 Jun 2024 01:37
Publisher:Wiley Open Access
ISSN:2692-7691
OA Status:Green
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.24600
Project Information:
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID162803
  • : Project TitleThe Canopic Jar Project: interdisciplinary analyses of ancient human soft tissues
  • : FunderUniversität Zürich
  • : Grant ID
  • : Project Title
  • Content: Published Version
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)