The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were arguably some of the greatest leaders in human history, reigning over the river Nile for some three thousand years. But for a brief moment there, right in the middle, they lost control of their most fertile lands.
According to ancient texts, roughly 3,600 years ago, an invading force, known as the Hyksos, seized northern Egypt from a series of incompetent pharaohs, banishing them to a small chunk of land in the south.
Or so the story goes.
Analysing human remains from extensive burial sites in the ancient Hyksos capital – about 120 kilometres northeast of Cairo – the largest isotopic study of the region supports a different theory: that these new rulers were descended from various Asiatic populations who had been living in Egypt for generations.
Thus, the authors argue, the rise of Hyksos was not a foreign invasion; it was more like an immigrant uprising.
Archaeologists have previously cast doubt on the idea of the ‘Hyksos invasion’, and this latest analysis is further evidence that the story has been twisted by time.
“[T]hese results challenge the classic narrative of the Hyksos as an invading force,” they write.
“Instead, 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.”
We can tell this from the ratio of strontium isotopes found at the archaeological site.
Strontium is an element found in all rock that can enter our food and water supply and end up in our bones and teeth. Different areas have different ratios of two strontium isotopes – Sr-86 and Sr-87 – which means that growing up along the Nile river shows in your teeth.
Comparing isotope ratios among locals of northern Egypt and the non-local Hyksos, researchers have found the signature of the Nile in both.
While there appears to be an influx of immigrants several hundred years before the Hyksos came to power, during the Hyksos period, the population born in the Delta is larger.
“This is consistent with the supposition that, while the ruling class had Near Eastern origins, the Hyksos’ rise to power was not the result of an invasion, as popularly theorised, but an internal dominance and takeover of foreign elite,” the authors write.
Like most histories, however, this was one written by the victors. After a century or so, the pharaohs took back ‘their’ land from the Hyksos for good, sending them elsewhere in search for other land – possibly inspiring the biblical story of Exodus.
But Egypt wasn’t just home for local Egyptians. This new data adds weight to the idea that the “northeastern Nile Delta represented a multicultural hub long before the Hyksos rule.”
Isotopic analysis suggests most people were non-locals, hailing not from a unified homeland but an international influx.
Other archaeological evidence supports this idea. Researchers have struggled to find signs of a battle in this region, despite extensive burial sites, and during this time, there’s more documentation of men with Egyptian names marrying women with non-Egyptian names than the other way around.
This matters because most invasions in history have been waged by men. Yet the new analysis suggests before the Hyksos uprising, there were far more non-local females immigrating to this region than non-local males.
“The excavated cemeteries and domestic burials are assumed to be more representative of the elites of the city rather than the ‘common’ population,” the authors explain, “and it is possible that these women are coming to the region for marriages cementing alliances with powerful families from beyond the Nile.”
Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser, who was not involved in the study, told Science Magazine he suspects most immigrants travelled to Egypt during this time with peaceful intentions.
While ancient historians described them as “invaders of an obscure race”, some archaeologists suspect that’s actually ‘fake news’ or ancient propaganda. Instead, they argue the Hyksos probably rose to power in a slow and peaceful way, bringing technology like the horse and chariot along with them.
Goldwasser’s research at Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests the Hyksos may have even invented the alphabet once they set down their roots in northern Egypt.
That’s called getting the job done.
The study was published in PLOS One.