Rulers of Ancient Egypt’s Enigmatic Hyksos Dynasty Were Immigrants, Not Invaders

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New research led by Bournemouth University archaeologists supports the theory that the Hyksos, the rulers of the 15th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, 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.

A man described as ‘Abisha the Hyksos,’ leading a group of Aamu, a painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II (circa 1900 BCE). Image credit: Macquarie University.

A man described as ‘Abisha the Hyksos,’ leading a group of Aamu, a painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II (circa 1900 BCE). Image credit: Macquarie University.

The Hyksos were a foreign dynasty that ruled parts of Egypt between 1638 and 1530 BCE, the first instance of Egypt being ruled by individuals of a foreign origin.

The narrative of how the Hyksos rose to rule is apocryphal. The Ptolemaic priest Manetho was for centuries the only account of their rise, rule, and fall.

Living approximately twelve centuries after the Hyksos dynasty, Manetho described the Hyksos rulers as leading an invading force sweeping in from the northeast and conquering the northeastern Nile Delta during the Second Intermediate Period in a time when Egypt as a country was vulnerable.

Manetho’s account only survived in the works of later historians such as Flavius Josephus and, however biased and unreliable, was the solitary known source of the Hyksos for centuries.

Archaeological evidence does link Hyksos culture with an origin in the Near East, but exactly how they rose to power is unclear.

In a new study, Dr. Chris Stantis and her colleagues from Bournemouth University, the Université de Bordeaux, Durham University, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences Vienna collected enamel samples from the teeth of 75 ancient people from the Hyksos capital city of Tell el-Dab’a.

Comparing ratios of strontium isotopes in the teeth to environmental isotope signatures from Egypt and elsewhere, the researchers assessed the geographic origins of the individuals who lived in the city.

They found that a large percentage of the populace were non-locals who immigrated from a wide variety of other places. This pattern was 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 multi-cultural region where one internal group — the Hyksos — eventually rose to power after living there for generations.

“Archaeological chemistry, specifically isotopic analysis, shows us first-generation migration during a time of major cultural transformations in ancient Egypt,” Dr. Stantis said.

“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 study was published online in the journal PLoS ONE.

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C. Stantis et al. 2020. Who were the Hyksos? Challenging traditional narratives using strontium isotope (87Sr/86Sr) analysis of human remains from ancient Egypt. PLoS ONE 15 (7): e0235414; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0235414

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