The Egyptian Blonde
|A head of curly, blonde hair, discovered in a tomb near il-Lahun by Sir Flinders Petrie.|
One of the most evocative objects on display in the Petrie Museum in London is a head of curly, blonde hair. At first sight one's impression is that this is a novelty wig, for the tastes of Egyptian woman (and possibly of their men as well) were as sophisticated and varied as those in any country and at any time in history. The typed label attached to the glass case, however, points out that the little bit of leather to which the hair is attached is, in fact, part of a scalp. In a land where everyone had straight, black hair, this particular blonde must have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Every time I see this head of hair I devoutly wish that Jurassic Park were true. If only some enterprising scientist could take the DNA from that scrap of scalp and recreate the living, breathing woman, the original owner of that hair, complete with all her memories and experiences, what a story she could tell! The nearest source of curly blondes is far to the north, in the cool forests of Germany among the Angles and Saxons and it is inconceivable that this woman should have made the long, arduous trip to Egypt voluntarily.
More likely she was a captive or a slave, perhaps sold by indigent parents in time of famine, perhaps kidnapped or taken as a captive in war. We can picture her captors marching her ever southwards, following the course of a river through deep wooded valleys and then across the rough stony hills of some Mediterranean country until at last they reach the coast of Greece or Italy. From there they would take ship, and in our imagination we can picture our blonde crouching wide-eyed in the bow, looking out across an unimagined waste of tossing waves until Cyprus hove into view. There she was sold for good Egyptian gold or exchanged for an assortment of alabaster vessels.
Her new owners, recognising her novelty value, treated he kindly but firmly, taking her on board another vessel and sailing south again into increasing heat until a low-lying land came in view and the ship threaded the narrow channels of the Nile delta. There, perhaps in Memphis of the White Walls, she was sold again, her price pitched so high that only a nobleman could afford such a luxury. Whoever he was, this man valued her highly enough that he had her buried in his tomb so that their relationship could continue on the other side of the grave.
A recent study by Mark Seielstad of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Eric Minch and Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford Unviersity in California, has shown that the Kahun blonde was not alone. She may be unique in the land of Egypt, but women like her were widespread in the ancient world.
The American researchers were comparing DNA samples taken from people in different parts of the world. DNA consists of long strands of molecules that encode the information which determines whether you have blue eyes or brown, black hair or red, long fingers or short, or even whether you are a man or a woman. Some minor variations, known as mutations, appear to have little effect on the body but are passed on from one generation to the next and it is possible to trace these mutations and determine that all those with one particular mutation come from one original ancestor. If due allowance is made for naturally occurring mutation rates, it is possible to state with reasonable certainty that individual X belongs to population group A.
Often, however, you find that individual X bears characteristics typical of population group A and population group B. In such a case you have evidence of intermarriage between these two population groups, a fact which is of little interest if X lives in modern times or comes from an area where groups A and B mingle freely, but of greater interest if A and B are on opposite sides of the world or X lived before modern transport became available.
Seielstad and his colleagues were particularly looking for evidence of migration and to do this they compared the Y chromosome - which only comes from the father - with mitochrondrial DNA (often known as mDNA) which only comes from the mother.
Rather than travelling around the world taking samples from everyone they met, the researchers trawled through published data from 54 different populations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific islands. Somewhat to their surprise they discovered that mDNA showed less diversity between all these different populations than the Y-chromosome. In fact, men showed eight times as much diversity as the women did, which led the researchers to conclude that women have travelled much more extensively and frequently than men!
This is entirely contrary to the usual picture of men as the fearless travellers and explorers, venturing far afield in search of game, gold or adventure. In fact, it appears to be women who have, whether boldly or not, gone where no one has gone before.
The reality, of course, is that men have travelled more widely than women; just that they have merely passed through without leaving offspring. One can think of many great explorers who have ranged widely across the world always thinking of the "little woman at home" and leaving nothing but memories among the native populations. Women who have ended up in the same countries, whether through war, trade or for love, were much more likely to intermarry with the local population and leave the record of their genes to succeeding generations.
Of course, probably not very many women were involved. Steven Strogatz of Cornell Univeristy in New York has demonstrated that a relatively small number of women could serve to make connections between widely separated groups of people. After all, it is a truism that there are only eight or ten links between you and any other individual in the world. "It probably requires only a tiny minority of women making enormous journeys to globalise their mDNA," he declares.
the other side of the grave Perhaps the saddest thing about this particular head of hair is precisely the fact that it is blonde: there are no gray hairs to be seen. In other words, the girl died young, whether in childbirth or pining with homesickness for the cool forests of her northern land we will never know. Return