Teeth Reveal Hyksos Rule of Ancient Egypt Was Internal Takeover, Not an Invasion

Seal amulet with the name of the Hyksos pharaoh Apophis. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0])

(CN) — For centuries, scholars believed the Hyksos, a people of mixed Semitic and Asian descent, were the first foreign dynasty to invade Egypt and conquer the northeastern Nile Delta. But new research is challenging traditional narratives about the origins of the Hyksos. 

For nearly a hundred years, the Hyksos ruled parts of ancient Egypt during a vulnerable time known as the Second Intermediate Period in the 15th Dynasty. The common story is that the nomadic Hyksos were invaders from a far-off land. Archaeological evidence links Hyksos culture with an origin in the Near East but exactly how they rose to power is unclear.

In fact, the Hyksos were not foreign invaders but a group who rose to power from within, according to a study published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Chris Stantis of Bournemouth University and his colleagues collected enamel samples from the teeth of 75 humans buried in the ancient Hyksos capital city of Tell el-Dab’a in the northeast Nile Delta. Comparing ratios of strontium isotopes in the teeth to environmental isotope signatures from Egypt and elsewhere, they found that a large percentage of the populace were non-locals who immigrated from a variety of other places — a pattern true both before and during the Hyksos dynasty.

This pattern does not match the story of a sudden invasion from a single far-off land, but of a multicultural region where one internal group eventually rose to power after living there for generations, the study’s authors concluded.

“Archaeological chemistry, specifically isotopic analysis, shows us first-generation migration during a time of major cultural transformations in ancient Egypt,” Stantis said in a statement. “Rather than the old scholastic theories of invasion, we see more people, especially women, migrating to Egypt before Hyksos rule, suggesting economic and cultural changes leading to foreign rule rather than violence.”

The traditional narrative of the Hyksos is apocryphal. For centuries, the only account of their rise, rule and fall from 1638–1530 B.C. came from a Ptolemaic priest named Manetho, who lived 1,200 years after the Hyksos lost power, Stantis said. Manetho described the Hyksos rulers as leading an invading force that originated to the north of Palestine and conquered the region, bringing the Middle Kingdom to an end in the 17th century B.C.

Western scholars further entangled the origin of the Hyksos with “race-based ‘science’ mired in Imperialism and Orientalism, conflating the Hyksos rulers to represent an entire ethnic group,” according to the study.

Historians have long believed that when the Hyksos came to Egypt, they brought new methods of making bronze and casting it into tools and weapons that became the standard for war and daily life in Egypt. Such technological advances are thought to have changed the course of Egyptian history and brought Egypt fully into the Bronze Age.

In recent decades, research using ceramics, burial customs, clothing and weapons has lent credence to the idea that the Hyksos were people of non-Egyptian ethnicity who were born and raised in the delta.

Stantis’ study, the first using archaeological chemistry to address the origins of the Hyksos rulers, found that more than half of all individuals — primarily females — from Tell el-Dab’a “spent their childhood outside the Nile Delta.”

“Contrary to the model of the Hyksos coming to power from a foreign invasion, we did not find more males moving into the region,” the study states. 

Gender balance would have been expected with families moving as economic opportunities arose but instead study authors found more females than males, Stantis said.

“It is possible that these women are coming to the region for marriages cementing alliances with powerful families from beyond the Nile.”

All told, the study’s findings point to an ascending ruling class that came from inside Egypt.

“This research supports the theory that the Hyksos rulers were not from a unified place of origin, but Western Asiatics whose ancestors moved into Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, lived there for centuries, and then rose to rule the north of Egypt,” the study states.

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