DNA decay rate in papyri and human remains from Egyptian archaeological sites

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2002 Apr;117(4):310-8. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.10045.


The writing sheets made with strips from the stem (caulis) of papyri (Cyperus papyrus) are one of the most ingenious products of ancient technology. We extracted DNA from samples of modern papyri varying in age from 0-100 years BP and from ancient specimens from Egypt, with an age-span from 1,300-3,200 years BP. The copy number of the plant chloroplast DNA in the sheets was determined using a competitive PCR system designed on the basis of a short (90 bp) tract of the chloroplast's ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase large subunit (rbcL) gene sequence. The results allowed us to establish that the DNA half-life in papyri is about 19-24 years. This means that the last DNA fragments will vanish within no more than 532-672 years from the sheets being manufactured. In a parallel investigation, we checked the archaeological specimens for the presence of residual DNA and determined the extent of racemization of aspartic (Asp) acid in both modern and ancient specimens, as a previous report (Poinar et al. [1996], Science 272:864-866) showed that racemization of aspartic acid and DNA decay are linked. The results confirmed the complete loss of authentic DNA, even in the less ancient (8th century AD) papyri. On the other hand, when the regression for Asp racemization rates in papyri was compared with that for human and animal remains from Egyptian archaeological sites, it proved, quite surprisingly, that the regressions are virtually identical. Our study provides an indirect argument against the reliability of claims about the recovery of authentic DNA from Egyptian mummies and bone remains.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Isomerases / isolation & purification
  • Animals
  • Archaeology / methods
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry
  • Cyperus / genetics*
  • DNA, Plant / isolation & purification*
  • Egypt, Ancient
  • History, Ancient
  • Hominidae / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Manuscripts as Topic / history*
  • Mummies
  • Paleography*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction


  • DNA, Plant
  • Aspartic Acid
  • Amino Acid Isomerases