What Killed King Tut? Incest and Malaria, Study Says

By Andrew Moseman | February 17, 2010 10:40 am

King tutOnce again, to the bane of myth-makers and fans of historical intrigue, the simplest explanation may be the best: Scientists analyzing the DNA of the world-famous mummy of Tutankhamen say that he wasn’t done in by murder nor any of the exotic diseases put forth as explanations for his death at the age of 19. Rather, they say in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was likely complications of malaria that killed King Tut, who was already frail thanks to royal inbreeding.

The team led by Egypt’s top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, spent years taking CT scans and conducting genetic tests on mummies from the royal tombs. They say they confirmed that Tut was the son of Akhenaten, which is what scholars have long believed, but it hints at something else: It also identifies some of his grandparents and great-grandparents for the first time and suggests that his mother was Akhenaten’s sister [The Times]. A brother-sister pair wasn’t unusual during this period in ancient Egypt, medical historian Howard Markel says. Pharaohs were thought of as deities, so it makes sense that the only prospective mates who’d pass muster would be other deities [AP].

Unfortunately for King Tut, that incestuous tradition made him more susceptible to degenerative bone diseases. He may have had Koehler’s disease, as well as a club foot. Earlier discoveries had hinted at Tutankhamen’s frailty, including the 100-plus walking sticks that Howard Carter found when he unearthed the tomb in 1922. “This is confirmed by images that show him sitting while shooting an arrow, which normally would have been done standing up,” says Hawass. “He cannot stand” [TIME].

The researchers also found that Tut and his family were infected by a parasite that often brought with it a virulent form of malaria. If the young Tut was already frail and had a weakened immune system, a malarial infection could have been life-threatening, the team hypothesizes. Not everyone buys the parasite bit, however, including parasite scientist Sanjeev Krishna. “If you have the parasite and you get to the age of 19, the chances are you’ve developed some kind of immunity,” he said [The Times].

But while a sickly minor king who could barely walk isn’t exactly as romantic as the King Tut of popular culture, James Phillips of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History says we shouldn’t expect the emerging facts to crush the myth. “Reality is reality, but it’s not going to change his place in the folk heroism of popular culture,” Phillips said. “The way he was found, what was found in his grave — even though he was a minor king, it has excited the imagination of people since 1922″ [AP].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: 5 Questions for the Mummy Doctor
80beats: Egypt Finds Tombs of Pyramid Builders, And More Evidence They Were Free Men
80beats: X-Rayed Mummies Reveal That Ancient Egyptians Had Heart Disease
Cosmic Variance: Tut-Tutting at Tut Tat

Image: flickr / Steve Evans

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • Katharine

    Which brings the question: why did the Egyptians not figure out that brother-sister mating would produce more infirmities?

  • Cory

    Ideology and religion is often chosen over good sense, provided they even noticed the change. Realistically, genetics isn’t something on any pre-modern people’s radars.

  • coryy

    hmmmmm.
    Except, you can’t tell me that they didn’t select their animals for the best mating pairs, and breed to (whatever unknown) standard, like breeding for more milk, or bigger animals, more eggs, or animals without defects. Wouldn’t somebody somewhere have looked at ‘people breeding’ in a similar fashion?

  • Katharine

    Isn’t incest supposed to be one of those things that instinctively causes revulsion, though?

  • Bob Snyder

    corry – Following your logic, the Egyptians would have selected the best human mates for themselves. So for the Pharaohs, it would have been the people they were related to as they were also thought of as deities.

    Katherine – In short, no. Imagine a boy and girl who grew up on an island by themselves without any human contact and consequently without any culture. They had 2 children, a boy and girl. Would the children be instinctively disgusted with the idea of mating with each other? No. With their parents? Probably not.

  • http://theharvview.blogspot.com HarveyY

    It would be interesting to show the history of inbreeding in the United States and the laws and dates set forth to prevent it. One can see how look it took to eradicate or severely limit the damages in our own country. Possible in Tut’s time it was way more commonplace.

    Speaking of Malaria, there was a very interesting article on recent research and approach to fighting this disease and the article was in Discover Magazine. I don’t remember the date as I read it in my doctor’s office and it prompted me to subscribe.

  • Roberta Soyars

    Fascinating – but not a surprise.

    So many theories about King Tut’s parentage have been tossed around, it was high time to get something from DNA testing.

    So, Tutankhamen was not the son of a slave/concubine, as has been postulated, last time we looked. The son of Akhenaten and his sister? Try Akhenaten and his Mom, Queen Tiye!

    Queen Tiye was Tuthankhamen’s grandmother. After she was widowed, Akhenaten took his own mother as his first consort, as his subjects expected an immediate queen. It’s my belief that they became the parents of Tuthankhamen.

    Shocking, to our 20th/21st century sensibilities? Akhenaten eventually “married” and impregnated two of his own daughters. Why not Mom as well?

    The idea was to keep the royal power within the family. Royal families of much later European and British families resorted to other means to insure that – notably, horrific murders!

  • Katharine

    “In short, no. Imagine a boy and girl who grew up on an island by themselves without any human contact and consequently without any culture. They had 2 children, a boy and girl. Would the children be instinctively disgusted with the idea of mating with each other? No. With their parents? Probably not.”

    Where’s the support for this, though?

  • Katharine

    Curiously, I wonder if the high rate of inbreeding and the fact that a great many of the people in power today are related to people who were in power centuries ago have anything to do with the fact that so many modern leaders are deranged. :P

  • Dave in Calif

    Katherine says; Curiously, I wonder if the high rate of inbreeding and the fact that a great many of the people in power today are related to people who were in power centuries ago have anything to do with the fact that so many modern leaders are deranged. :P

    Great point Katherine :-)

  • http://www.islandfrank.com Frank Tuma

    Not just modern leaders, as the article shows as well as many other studies, it has happened through out time.

  • Meret

    Tiye made her daughter Sitamun Great Royal wife to try to bring forth children with her husband because she could not. So no, it was not his mother who is the parent of Tut. He had at least four sisters but the obvious candidates are the three who were elevated to Great Royal Wife to their father.

  • djwycked

    They never would have thought about studying people breeding because to them they were gods…im sure they had a huge amount of arrogance which eventually led to their down fall.

  • Roberta Soyars

    Back in the early ’60’s, there was much conjecture about the parentage of King Tut. Many thought that Queen Tiye might have been his mother, partly because a lock of her hair was found in Tutankamen’s tomb. There were other indications that there was a familial relationship of some kind.

    After re-reading the DNA analysis, I must recant, and agree with both Meret and Katherine. The picture becomes clearer. You’re quite right, the DNA indicates that Akhenaten and one of his sisters, were the parents of Tut.

    Since a wet nurse and nanny were employed for Tut, and little is known of his biological mother, she may have died in childbirth, or soon after. Tut’s grandmother, Queen Tiye may have stepped up to the plate, to fill in for his mother. This is conjecture, of course, many royal children were breast-fed by women other than their mothers.

    We’re promised more info in a year or so. Perhaps then we will learn the identity and ultimate fate of Tut’s Mom.

  • shelley

    “Where’s the support for this, though”
    the story of Sawney Bean and his family in Scotland probably is an example. often, those most upset by the details claim this is only a legend, but some researchers have found support for believing it to be fact.

  • Pete

    What do you think about the Discovery Channel leakage of the King being Western European? YouTube and the internet are going crazy with this.

  • http://eforexloginnews.info forex

    Egregious post. I am overlay a at one of these problems.

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