How King Tut Died Revealed in New Study

Research blasts myths about teenage pharaoh, indicates malaria may be to blame.

February 16, 2010, 12:57 PM

Feb. 16, 2010— -- Years of DNA tests and CT scans on Egypt's famous pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, and his family have yielded surprising results revealing how he died at the young age of 19, and solving the centuries old mystery of his lineage.

Ancient Egypt's most famous pharaoh likely died of a leg injury which was complicated by bone disease and bout of malaria, according to the comprehensive analysis of mummies in his royal family.

The study, conducted by Zahi Hawass of the Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), took two years to finish and shows that because of multiple disorders, the boy King was likely a "frail king who needed canes to walk."

Their research showed the young king had a club foot and a cleft palate and his parents were probably siblings; a brother and sister.

But, contrary to long-standing speculation, no signs of gynecomastia (breast development in males) or Marfan syndrome were found by the research team led by Carsten Pusch, of the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Ever since British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb in 1922 beneath the shifting sands of the Valley of the Kings, King Tut has mesmerized Egyptologists and the public alike. It was the treasures that were found in his tomb 90 years ago -- including a solid gold death mask with lapis and other semi precious stones -- that first piqued people's interest.

But little had been known about how he died and his family until this new study was published today.

Tutankhamun died at age 19 without an heir and after reigning only nine years. His early death, sparked historians' suspicions of murder and familial disease, the researchers wrote in the Feb. 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

There had been theories that he had been murdered because of a hole that was found in his skull but this was ruled out in 2005 after CT scans suggested the hole was most likely the result of the mummification process.

Taken together, the new research findings suggest that his death was not attributable to foul play but rather a constitutionally weakened condition caused by the combination of a leg fracture and infection with malaria.

The Discovery Channel will air a two day documentary on the new findings about King Tutankhamun Sunday Feb. 21 and Monday Feb. 22

This investigation was unique in its unfettered access to royal mummies and its use of radiography, DNA technology, and other modern scientific tools, Dr. Howard Markel, of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor wrote in an editorial released with the JAMA paper.

But Markel cautioned about the ethical considerations of DNA research. While DNA was the key to solving part of the puzzle, Markel questioned whether major historical figures have a right to privacy after death just as private citizens do.

For Pusch's group, the chance to make such an accurate guess on King Tutankhamun's death was made possible, at least in part, because of developments in DNA technology.

Rather than make inferences from artifacts and paintings, the researchers conducted detailed anthropological, radiological, and genetic studies of royal mummies as part of the King Tutankhamun Family Project.

Statues, sculptures, and reliefs from the Armana period around 1353 to 1323 B.C. when King Tut and his father -- the controversial King Akhenaten, who tried to radically transform religion in the New Kingdom -- ruled suggested an androgynous appearance in the royal family. Statues of the time showed the King Tut with an elongated head and feminized features.

Although no chest wall was available for Tutankhamen to determine whether he had gynecomastia, the researchers noted "well developed" genitalia.

He also had a relatively flat head (brachycephaly) contrasting with the elongated skull (dolichocephaly) expected as one of the obvious features of Marfan syndrome.

Thus, the feminine physique seen in art from the period likely reflected a royally-decreed idealized style, not a bizarre appearance of the family, Pusch and colleagues concluded.

The researchers also excluded Antley-Bixler syndrome, but detailed radiological examination of the king's feet revealed a low arch and deformed structure with areas of bone density indicating bone necrosis.

A foot disorder (Köhler disease II) or a bone disorder (Freiberg-Köhler syndrome) was apparently active at the time of death and may have caused walking disability for some time.

The disorders may explain the 130 canes and walking sticks -- some with traces of wear -- found in the boy king's tomb as well as the depictions of him seated for activities like hunting for which he normally should have been standing.

Among the 10 possibly or definitely closely related mummies examined, Pusch's group also found bone malformation -- including cleft palate, clubfeet, and flat feet -- along with indications of bone degeneration, neoplastic changes, and trauma.

Several of the mummies, like Tutankhamun, had DNA of the malaria parasite, although none had evidence of tuberculosis, leprosy, leishmaniasis, or pandemic bubonic plague.

The researchers also discovered the identity of several of the mummies, whereas only three had identities known for sure before the two-year project:

Genetic testing of Y chromosomes and blood groups helped scientists identify which mummy was King Tut's father.

Genetic testing of Y chromosome alleles showed identical allele patterns in Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun, and a third mummy but not other unrelated mummies, a result that was replicated by a second laboratory. This, along with identical blood group results with Tutankhamun, further supported that the third mummy (KV55) is Akhenaten, the researchers said.

Using the genetic information on allele sharing among the mummies, the researchers put together the most plausible family tree as Yuya and Thuya as parents of the newly identified Tiye, who with Amenhotep III had Akhenaten and his sister, the as-yet unidentified mummy KV35YL.

The genetic information also showed Tutankhamun was the father of two mummified fetuses, and that his mother and father -- Akhenaten -- were also sister and brother.

The mother of the two stillbirths was suggested to be the mummy KV21A, although the little data available did not statistically significantly define her as Ankhensenamun.

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