DNA studies show King Tut died from malaria, broken leg
Published Tuesday, February 16, 2010 4:06PM EST
King Tutankhamun died of a broken leg, complicated by malaria, according to an extensive series of medical tests conducted on the 3,300-year-old mummy of the boy king.
Results of two years of DNA testing and CT scans on Tut, the best known of the Egyptian pharaohs, showed he suffered from a cleft palate and a club foot and probably needed a cane to help him walk.
The study, published in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, appears to put to rest recent speculation about how Tutankhamun died, including one theory suggesting he had been murdered.
Researchers carried out exhaustive scans of 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, establishing a clear family tree and indicating for the first time that he was the child of a brother-sister union, common among ancient Egypt's pharaohs.
His father was almost certainly Akhenaten, the pharaoh who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion and force his people to worship one god, while his mother turned out to be one of Akhenaten's sisters.
Archeologists have not yet been able to put a name to the mummy that has been identified as Tut's mother, but for the first time were able to identify a previously unnamed mummy as that of Akhenaten
Tutankhamun became pharaoh at the age of 10 in 1333 B.C., but ruled for just nine years.
"Little was known of Tutankhamun and his ancestry prior to Howard Carter's discovery of his intact tomb (KV62) in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, but his mummy and the priceless treasures buried with him, along with other important archeological discoveries of the 20th century, have provided significant information about the boy pharaoh's life and family," the authors of the study wrote.
The treasures unearthed from his tomb have been seen by millions and included some of the most famous artifacts in the world, including the famed golden funeral mask.
Some of those treasures are now on display in Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario, part of a temporary exhibit on loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Because Tutankhamun died so young, and left no heirs, there has been widespread speculation over the years about diseases that may have occurred in his family, as well as the debate over the cause of his death.
Statues and temple wall paintings from the 18th Dynasty have depicted the pharaohs of that era as with a feminized or androgynous appearance. This led some scientists to suggest genetic abnormality or other diseases afflicted the notoriously inbred royal family.
But the new study found no evidence of the syndromes that might have caused such feminine appearance in the male pharaohs.
"It is unlikely that either Tutankhamun or Akhenaten actually displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique," the researchers wrote. "It is important to note that ancient Egyptian kings typically had themselves and their families represented in an idealized fashion."
The study did find several inherited deformities in Tutankhamun's family, including the bone disorder Kohler disease, which limited blood flow to the bones of the young king's left foot, but added that "none alone would have caused death."
However, the study said the disease would have left Tutankhamun frail and in constant pain. It noted that 130 walking sticks and canes were discovered in Tut's tomb, some of them with trace of wear suggested they had been used.
The scan also uncovered his broken leg, which may have finally killed him if the injury became aggravated by severe brain malaria.
"A sudden leg fracture possibly introduced by a fall might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred," the study found.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and dozens of colleagues conducted the study between September 2007 and October 2009, and suggested that it might even be the start of a new branch of science.
"With additional data, a scientific discipline called molecular Egyptology might be established … merging natural sciences, life sciences, cultural sciences, humanities, medicine, and other fields."