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Malaria And Bone Disease Killed King Tut

February 17, 2010

King Tutankhamun, the young pharaoh that died at the age of 19 in 1324 B.C., suffered from many disorders, but the most likely cause of his death was a severe case of malaria and a degenerative bone disease, according to researchers.

Several mummies that were part of the study showed DNA evidence of malaria, but it was King Tut that caught the attention of scientists. To their knowledge this was “the oldest genetic proof of malaria in precisely dated mummies.”

The advancement in radiological studies and genetic testing provides a new key to understanding the royal Egyptian mummies both historically and medically through science.

Researchers said previous studies had found other revealing injuries and conditions in King Tut, including a leg fracture that may have led to a life-threatening condition in the immune system that had already been weakened by malaria. The latest study checked for possible evidence of foul play that had been suspected by historians and other noted personalities that are familiar with ancient Egypt culture. Researchers said they found no evidence to back up the allegations that the mummy had been contaminated or tampered with.

Genetic evidence also linked King Tut to 11 other mummies in the study, as family connections over five generations. Only three of the mummies were known to come from the same lineage as Tut, previously. Scientists said that they identified one as Tut’s father, one as his mother and another as his grandmother.

The young king reigned for only nine years before his untimely death in 1324 B.C. But he was not the only one in his family that suffered ill health and physical marring. Several other mummies revealed instances of cleft palate, flat feet, bone deterioration and club foot. Four of the mummies, including Tut, had genetic traces of malaria tropica, the most severe form of malaria.

Researchers found several more abnormalities in King Tut’s mummy, including Kohler disease II, which was not deadly by itself. But he also suffered vascular bone necrosis, a condition in which blood supply to the bone is depleted causing serious weakening and deterioration in tissue.

The researchers concluded that the bone necrosis and malaria are most likely what caused Tut’s death. Walking canes that were found in Tut’s tomb helps strengthen the evidence that he was burdened by a serious deformity of his left foot.

Another disorder found in Tut’s mummy was the evidence of gynecomastia — the excessive development of breasts in men — which usually was the result of a hormonal imbalance. This may also explain why many sculptures and reliefs depict Tut and his family members as having a somewhat feminine appearance. The chest area was not preserved, but his penis, no longer attached to the body, was well developed, researchers said.

The two-year study, which was completed in October of 2009, was directed by Zahi Hawass, an Egyptologist who heads the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. The study also included work from scientists from Egypt, Germany and Italy. The corresponding author was Carsten M. Pusch of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Tbingen.

The research is published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA. 2010;303[7]:638-647). In an editorial in the journal (JAMA. 2010;303[7]:667-668), Dr. Howard Markel of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan praised the thoroughness of the research. He suggested that based on the new claims surrounding the young king, “the legion of Tutankhamun admirers might be well advised to reconsider several existing theories.”

Discovery Channel will host a two-part program on Sunday and Monday, titled “King Tut Unwrapped.” Dr. Hawass and other scientists will discuss the new findings.

Though not one of the great rulers of ancient Egypt, King Tut is easily the best known in public lore. His tomb was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter. The artifacts that were exhumed form Tut’s tomb have dazzled museum goers for decades. King Tut was the son and successor of Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt from 1351 to 1334 B.C.

Most of the diagnoses are “hypotheses derived by observing and interpreting artifacts and not by evaluating the mummified remains of royal individuals apart from these artifacts,” the scientists concluded.

What rules should there be for solving pathological puzzles of ancient cultures? When do privacy issues cease for historical figures once they die? What do we gain from the studies of such people? Will it change how we respond and prevent diseases of today? Will it change the understanding of the past? Dr. Markel wrote in the journal that these are all questions that should be addressed when it comes to the ethical issues of using 21st century radiology and genetic research in studies of human history.

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