4000-year-old hair from the Middle Nile highlights unusual ancient DNA degradation pattern and a potential source of early eastern Africa pastoralists.
Petrous bones and teeth are the skeletal elements most often targeted by researchers for ancient DNA (aDNA) extraction, and the sources of the majority of previously published ancient African genomes. However, the high temperature environments that characterise much of Africa often lead to poor preservation of skeletal remains. Here, we successfully reconstruct and analyse genome-wide data from the naturally mummified hair of a 4000-year-old individual from Sudan in northeastern Africa, after failed attempts at DNA extraction from teeth, petrous, and cranium of this and other individuals from the Kadruka cemeteries. We find that hair DNA extracted with an established single-stranded library protocol is unusually enriched in ultra-short DNA molecules and exhibits substantial interior molecular damage. The aDNA was nonetheless amenable to genetic analyses, which revealed that the genome is genetically indistinguishable from that of early Neolithic eastern African pastoralists located 2500 kms away. Our findings are consistent with established models for the southward dispersal of Middle Nile Valley pastoral populations to the Rift Valley of eastern Africa, and provide a possible genetic source population for this dispersal. Our study highlights the value of mummified hair as an alternate source of aDNA from regions with poor bone preservation.