Did you know you can compare your DNA to an ancient Saka Prince and Princess?
See if you are related to ancient royalty
We are intrigued by our ancient ancestors because our past defines who we are today. One could also argue that a better understanding of our past will aid us in securing the future of our species. This is the story of the discovery of a burial site from the Saka period, and why DNA tests are useful not only for tracing ancestral kinships, but also for understanding ancient cultural practices.
Scythia was a region of Central Eurasia in the classical era that stretched from the countries surrounding the Black Sea across Kazakhstan and lower Russia and south into Afghanistan and Iran. The Greeks referred to the nomadic people living in this huge region from 700BC – 200AD as Scythians, but modern day scholars now usually call them the Saka people. Very little is known about the Saka people, their cultural practices or their rulers, and much of our current knowledge was determined by excavating their burial places.
In 1997, an international archaeological expedition in the Bukhtarma valley of east Kazakhstan discovered an ancient kurgan dating back to the Saka period in the early 3rd century BC. A kurgan is an ancient burial mound, heaped over a burial chamber, where members of the elite were buried together with sacrificial offerings, including weapons, horses and chariots. This kurgan held a wooden sarcophagus containing the skeletal remains of an adult male and adult female.
Based on the size of the kurgan and the sacrificial offerings (including 13 horses!), it was assumed that these remains were from a Saka Prince and his wife. However, it was also possible that the two skeletons were biologically related; hence DNA analyses were used to test this possibility. Initial analyses focused on autosomal STR (short tandem repeat) markers. Each person inherits one copy of each autosomal STR marker from each parent, so if this pair were a father and daughter, or a mother and son, half of their STR markers would match. The autosomal STR analysis ruled out this possibility, but couldn’t exclude the possibility that the two individuals were siblings.
To exclude sibling kinship, the researchers turned to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is strictly maternally inherited (passed from mother to child), and effectively doesn’t change from generation to generation. There are hundreds of copies of the mtDNA genome in each of our cells, making it very useful for the analysis of ancient samples. The mtDNA profiles obtained from the Saka remains confirmed that the two skeletons were not related, supporting the idea that the female skeleton was the wife of the Saka Prince. The Prince’s mtDNA profile was more commonly associated with European individuals, whereas the Princess’s mtDNA profile is more similar to Central Asian populations. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your results to those of this Saka Prince and Princess to see if you have descended from the same maternal lineage.