King Tut and Mummy Genetics

largepharaohsThe big science story of the past 24 hours has been a paper from the Journal of American Medical Association about what caused the death of King Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut, the world’s most famous mummy. Many of the news articles have understandably focused on the “smoking gun” that killed Tut – or rather, the lack of anything so exciting as a smoking gun. Through genetic analysis and computed tomography scans, the authors determined that King Tut likely died at age 19 of a rather hum-drum combination: a bone fracture that left the Egyptian monarch vulnerable to a deadly malarial infection. “This is one sick kid,” reacted Emily Teeter, assistant curator at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute in the AP article.

But that conclusion, like most in sciences of ancient civilizations, was not universally accepted. In the midst of thousands of news articles that merely echoed the authors’ diagnosis, Naturenews put together a nice survey of conflicting opinions from Egyptologists and molecular biologists. Many experts believe that a lot of people in ancient Egypt – located along the banks of the rather mosquito-friendly Nile – were probably exposed to malaria, and many likely developed partial immunity to the disease rather than dying from it. Even one of the authors (from the amazingly-named Institute for Mummies and the Iceman), sounded a bit wishy-washy on their diagnosis. “We will never be able to prove he died from malaria,” co-author Albert Zink told Nature.

That’s okay, because the article is interesting beyond being an uncertain coroner’s report for a famous mummy. King Tut wasn’t the only subject of the article; in all, 11 mummies from museums in Luxor and Cairo were scanned and had tissue extracted for genetic analysis. The authors used that data to construct something of a mummy family tree, organizing five generations of the “18th Dynasty” royal family that ruled Egypt from roughly 1550 to 1295 BC. The results could form the basis for an HBO drama, as evidence strongly suggested that Tut’s parents were brother and sister. Potentially as a result of that incestuous relationship, the teenage King Tut had a number of significant bone abnormalities revealed by the team’s CT scans. Combined with artifacts depicting Tut as more of a sitter than a stander and the discovery of several cane-like implements in his tomb, there’s both cultural and now physical evidence that King Tut was disabled – a Richard III for ancient Egypt, though perhaps without the villainous streak.

One sensational rumor about Tut and his family that the paper does not support is the theory that the young king and his father may have had more severe genetic disorders. Many drawings and sculptures of the time depict Tut and his father, Akhenaten as oddly feminized, leading some Egyptologists to speculate whether the two had a genetic condition such as Marfan syndrome or gynecomastia (which causes men to develop breasts). Both theories were unsupported by the research, both genetically and anatomically – the latter analysis requiring the eyebrow-raising sentence, “The penis of Tutankhamun, which is no longer attached to the body, is well developed.” Instead of having a feminizing condition, the authors conclude, the aesthetic preferences of the day likely inspired artists to give their rulers a fashionable, womanly look.

The University of Chicago has its own mummy “murder” mystery, in the form of Meresamun, a 2,800-year-old Egyptian temple singer who has never been removed from her casing. It’s become a tradition here that every time the Medical Center obtains a new CT scanner, Meresamun is the ceremonial first patient to test out the equipment. And with each subsequent scan, more has been learned about what might have killed Meresamun, with a broken jaw once thought to be the result of trauma during life discovered to be, instead, the result of poor handling after death. Last June, the University turned to a police sketch artist in Maryland to recreate what Meresamun looked like in life, but the cause of her death remains a mystery.

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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