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Naming that mummy takes time

After the Discovery Channel identifies it as Queen Hatshepsut, science painstakingly works to confirm it.

December 23, 2007|Anna Johnson | Associated Press

CAIRO — Months after Egypt boldly announced that archaeologists had identified a mummy as the most powerful queen of her time, scientists in a museum basement are still analyzing DNA from the bald 3,500-year-old corpse to try to authenticate the claim aired on TV.

Progress is slow. So far, results indicate the linen-wrapped mummy is most likely, but not conclusively, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, who ruled for 20 years in the 15th century B.C.

Running its own ancient-DNA lab is a major step forward for Egypt, which for decades has seen foreigners take most of the credit for major discoveries here.

It's time Egyptian scientists took charge, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's antiquities chief, who spearheaded the quest to find Hatshepsut and build the lab. "Egyptology, for the last 200 years, it has been led by foreigners."

But the Hatshepsut discovery also highlights the struggle to back up recent spectacular findings in Egypt, including the unearthing of ancient tombs and mummies, investigations into how King Tut died, and even the discovery in the Siwa oasis of possibly the world's oldest human footprint.

So far, the science shown in the Discovery Channel's "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" has not been published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal -- the gold standard of scientific research worldwide.

And some scientists, even ones working on the project, have raised concerns.

"I think the people at the Discovery Channel went way too much 'CSI,' " said biological anthropologist Angelique Corthals.

"They think you can pick up evidence at 2 p.m. and by 6 p.m. you get results," added Corthals, a scholar at England's University of Manchester who has been helping Egypt establish the DNA lab.

In June, Egypt announced that Hatshepsut's mummy had been found, and about a month later the Discovery Channel aired the documentary -- showcasing scientific breakthroughs including CT scans and DNA testing. The mummy is on display in a glass case in the Egyptian Museum's royal mummy room.

Hawass, other Egyptian officials and the Discovery Channel all stand by their findings, even though the DNA testing is incomplete.

"So far there is some agreement and no discrepancies. The results are quite encouraging," said Yehia Zakaria Gad, a molecular geneticist who heads the ancient-DNA lab at the Egyptian Museum.

Most of the evidence that led Hawass to declare the mummy to be Hatshepsut did not come from DNA but from CT scans. Those scans showed that a tooth found in a relic box displaying the pharaoh's insignia matched a gap in the mummy's jaw.

CT scans also showed facial similarities between the mummy and already identified mummies of Hatshepsut's royal relatives, as well as evidence of a skin disease that the queen may have shared with some of them.

"The reason why we went with such a strong claim was because the CT scan was conclusive and the fact that the missing tooth provided the missing clue. . . . I don't think that the DNA testing will indicate otherwise," said Peter Lovering, Discovery's senior programming executive.

Now, scientists at the Egyptian Museum lab are comparing Hatshepsut's DNA sequences to the previously identified mummy of Hatshepsut's grandmother -- the first such attempt in Egypt to use this scientific analysis to verify a mummy's identity. DNA is the unique genetic code of a person and a key tool in solving decades-old crimes, establishing paternity and finding cures for diseases.

The Discovery documentary, which showed scientists extracting DNA from the mummies, did indicate DNA results were incomplete and did not say those results proved the mummy was Hatshepsut.

But Corthals still has raised concerns about the expectations placed on the new DNA lab.

She said the team at the Egyptian lab was under "a lot of pressure" to produce results. She said they had "very good preliminary results," but it would take months to verify that those results were not a fluke.

Egypt also lacks an independent second lab to review the testing. Before any DNA results can be published in a scientific journal, the Egyptian Museum lab must duplicate its initial findings -- which have not yet been completed -- and then the samples must be sent to an independent lab to be replicated.

"The ancient-DNA world goes by a very stringent set of criteria. . . . One of the biggest is replication by an independent lab," Corthals said. "If you don't do it, particularly with something so famous as this mummy, no peer-review journal will publish it.

"And if you don't get it published in a peer-review journal, as a scientist, you haven't done anything," she said.

Hawass says he is trying to get a second DNA lab set up in Egypt. The first $5-million lab, funded by the Discovery Channel, is the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to identify mummies and reexamine the royal mummy collection.

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