New research pointing to the likely causes King Tut’s death as malaria and bone abnormalities—as opposed to a Hollywood-worthy dynastic murder plot—may represent much more than a historical footnote. Using a combination of radiography, DNA analysis and genetic mapping, an international team of scientists has opened a Pandora’s box of issues from rewriting history to ethical treatment of the deceased to better understanding of today’s infectious diseases.
The fresh findings on the boy pharaoh were published recently in the in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Ever since the discovery of his tomb in 1922, Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun has continued to fascinate.
Egyptologists, historians and mystery writers have speculated for decades not only on the causes of Tut’s death at 19, but also on his life and family tree. Although Tut ascended the throne at age 9 and only ruled for 10 years, he’s one of the best-known pharaohs because of the riches found in his tomb.
The discovery of a hole in the pharaoh’s skull suggested to some a murder plot. That now appears to be part of the mummification process. Because some representations of Tut indicate a feminine or androgynous appearance, many speculated that he suffered from a rare genetic imbalance or Marfan’s syndrome. Wrong again.
Although no evidence of Marfan’s syndrome or other gender-bending disorders were found, Tut did suffer from two maladies that probably killed him: a debilitating bone disorder combined with the oldest proven case of malaria. King Tut’s mosquito bite may mean as much for modern science—looking at the way diseases mutate to survive—as it does for historical detail.
And who was Tut’s mother? Findings from this research indicate it was his father’s sister.
In unprecedented collaboration, scientists from Egypt, Germany and Italy, independently examined 16 royal mummies, including some believed to be from Tutankhamun’s immediate lineage.
The objective was “to determine the familial relationship of these royal family members and test the mummies for evidence of murder, genetic disorders, and infectious diseases,” according to Howard Markel, M.D., director of the Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan, in a JAMA editorial.
“All doctors love to make diagnoses, it’s what we do,” says Markel of the research. “In a culture where rulers considered themselves deities it makes sense that a pharaoh would marry his own sister. But it does set them up for a whole bunch of inherited disorders.”
Advances in technology continue to make retroactive discoveries possible, Markel says, explaining that it wasn’t possible to even identify the gene that causes Marfan’s syndrome until recently. As science teaches us more about our own bodies, he says, “the more we’ll be able to learn about mummies” from the distant past.
Ancient bite, new discoveries
Tut suffered from a cleft palate and a clubfoot, which most likely caused him to walk with a cane, but it’s the discovery of the oldest known case of malaria that’s exciting scientists around the world.
“When you look back at older infections, you can tell how a microbe has mutated over time,” Markel says. “That’s critical information about how we treat infections today. DNA evidence from the 1918 flu has already told us an enormous amount about how that virus mutated and jumped from avian to human.”
“If they can find out when he got malaria,” adds David Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, and curator of the King Tut exhibit that’s currently touring the United States, “that will give us much more insight into Tutankhamun’s life.”
Silverman says that a malarial infection was more likely to occur after Tut moved from the relatively arid city of Amarna to verdant Thebes. Fixing a date to a specific moment in the life of someone who lived 3,300 years ago is enough to get any historian’s heart racing.
Equally valuable to Egyptologists is the renewed emphasis on scientific evidence over speculation. Silverman has long cautioned against historical theories based on artistic representation, pointing out that statues and reliefs of Tut vary greatly. Theorizing that Tut suffered from an obscure syndrome because of bosomy statuary, Silverman says, would be akin to speculating that the great pharaoh Senwosret III suffered from gastritis because most representations of him show a grimace or a downturned mouth.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he says.