Scientist Smackdown: Did King Tut Die of Malaria or Sickle Cell?

By Eliza Strickland | June 28, 2010 11:43 am

King-TutWhat struck down ancient Egypt’s King Tutankhamen at the tender age of 19?

Just this winter, Egyptian researchers seemed to think they had a definitive answer. After years of genetic tests and CT scans, they concluded that royal incest had produced a sickly boy with a bone disorder, and argued that a malaria-bearing parasite finished him off. But now a team of German researchers is arguing that the observations actually point to death from the inherited blood disorder sickle cell disease (SCD).

People with SCD carry a mutation in the gene for haemoglobin which causes their red blood cells to become rigid and sickle-shaped. A single copy of the sickle-cell gene confers increased immunity to malaria, so it tends to be common in areas where the infection is endemic – such as ancient Egypt. People with two copies of the gene suffer severe anaemia and often die young. [New Scientist]

In a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the German scientists argue that the bone damage seen in the investigation of Tut’s mummy was likely the result of sickle cell disease, as the sickle-shaped cells can block blood flow through capillaries and therefore keep oxygen from reaching bone tissue. They also argue that malaria is more likely to kill young children in areas where the disease is endemic; those who survive to their teenaged years typically have a degree of immunity.

The German researchers, who hail from the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, are eager to follow up on their theory.

According to the German researchers, the Egyptian researchers could have tested Tut’s DNA for the genetic blood disorder. “To confirm sickle cell disease or the genetic trait would take just 60 minutes and is easy – we wonder why the authors haven’t done that so far,” said [study coauthor] Christian Meyer. [LiveScience]

The Egyptian researchers say they’re interested in the new theory, and will investigate it in due time. For now, the mystery that began with the boy king’s death around 1324 B.C. will linger on.

Related Content:
80beats: What Killed King Tut? Incest and Malaria, Study Says
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
80beats: Scientist Smackdowns (our growing compendium of juicy scientific arguments)
DISCOVER: 5 Questions for the Mummy Doctor

Image: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins
  • Somosuno

    “SCD (SICKLE CELL Disease), while inherited at birth, is most likely to result in fatal complications between childhood and early adulthood…

    Aappaarently Hawass was asked if SCD was possible?

    …A family tree of King Tut, suggested by Hawass himself, appears to further the German team’s case.”

    Now even if the test comes back negative, Hawass has already confirmed that both Tut’s parents had to have the trait, therefore, both are Afrikan!” Hawass may not have realized that by concedibg SCD was a possibility, that he told the truth inadvertently about the Afrikan heritage of Tut’s parents. Either way, Hawass has let out the truth.

  • http://ijntu3tu lily

    you suck he died of malaria

  • The Skeptic

    Sickle Cell : R-M343 :

    J Hum Genet. 2011 Jan;56(1):29-33. Epub 2010 Oct 28.
    Y-chromosome R-M343 African lineages and sickle cell disease reveal structured assimilation in Lebanon.
    Haber M, Platt DE, Khoury S, Badro DA, Abboud M, Tyler-Smith C, Zalloua PA.

    Medical School, The Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon.

    We have sought to identify signals of assimilation of African male lines in Lebanon by exploring the association of sickle cell disease (SCD) in Lebanon with Y-chromosome haplogroups that are informative of the disease origin and its exclusivity to the Muslim community. A total of 732 samples were analyzed, including 33 SCD patients from Lebanon genotyped for 28 binary markers and 19 short tandem repeats on the non-recombinant segment of the Y chromosome. Genetic organization was identified using populations known to have influenced the genetic structure of the Lebanese population, in addition to African populations with high incidence of SCD. Y-chromosome haplogroup R-M343 sub-lineages distinguish between sub-Saharan African and Lebanese Y chromosomes. We detected a limited penetration of SCD into Lebanese R-M343 carriers, restricted to Lebanese Muslims. We suggest that this penetration brought the sickle cell gene along with the African R-M343, probably with the Saharan caravan slave trade.

    The origin, time of spread or details of the association of SCD with Lebanese Muslims cannot be deduced from the genetic content of sickle haplotypes. The sickle mutation is estimated to have arisen 3000–6000 generations ago,8, 9 whereas the haplotypes surrounding the β-globin locus are even older, limiting specificity of Lebanese SCD geographic origin.

    “DNA was extracted from blood using a standard phenol–chloroform method. Samples were genotyped using the Applied Biosystems 7900HT Fast Real-Time PCR System with a set of 28 custom Y-chromosomal binary marker assays (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA, USA) from the non-recombining portion of the Y chromosome, which define 21 haplogroups. The new samples were additionally amplified at 19 Y-chromosomal STR loci in two multiplexes and analyzed on an Applied Biosystems 3130xl Genetic Analyzer. The first multiplex contained the standard 17 loci of the Y-filer PCR Amplification kit (Applied Biosystems). The remaining two loci, DYS388 and DYS426, were genotyped in a separate custom multiplex provided by Applied Biosystems.”

    Regarding King Tut:…

    STRs are repeated DNA sequences which are “short repeat units” whose characteristics make them especially suitable for human identification.

    These STR values for 17 markers visible in the video are as follows:
    DYS 19 – 14 (? not clear)
    DYS 385a – 11
    DYS 385b – 14
    DYS 389i – 13
    DYS 389ii – 30
    DYS 390 – 24
    DYS 391 – 11
    DYS 392 – 13
    DYS 393 – 13
    DYS 437 – 14 (? not clear)
    DYS 438 – 12 (edited in this is at (12) predominately [Black] African !
    DYS 439 – 10
    DYS 448 – 19
    DYS 456 – 15
    DYS 458 – 16
    DYS 635 – 23
    YGATAH4 – 11

    The screen shot did not include DSY388 and DSY426 !


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar