Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Story of King Tut

I read a story today - a story far more enthralling than medical or forensic mysteries on TV.  It's a true story - one based on real science! The protagonist was no other than the archeological marvel the great King Tut. King Tut or Tutankhamun is a familiar name to most of us. You may remember him from the story of Howard Carter's discovery his intact tomb in 1922, from the media-instigated folk-lores about the curse of his mummy, or from your middle school textbooks, where his name would have appeared alongside those of Akhenatun and Nefertiti.

Pharaoh Tutankhamun
Tut became king at the age of 9 and mysteriously died when he was 19. Our middle school history books tell us that he was somehow vaguely related to Amenhotep III,  Akhenatun (Amenhotep IV), and Nefertiti (the beautiful wife of Akhenatun). Yet, from a variety of different sources I stumbled upon over the years, it appeared that Akhenatun could have been Tut's uncle, dad, or brother! A hailed pharaoh in his lifetime, King Tut was denounced as a heretic after his death and heir-less as he was, his legend was lost for millenia after his death in the obscurity of a shabby tomb. 
King Tut's mummy being prepared for a CT scan
Thanks to the great leaps in medical imaging, a CT scan in 2005 revealed that a leg fracture could have been responsible for King Tut's death and, contrary to longheld belief, not a head blow. The story I read today is based on a follow-up study in February, 2010, by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and others where they used DNA fingerprinting to reveal information about the lineage of the pharaoh and drew some exciting further conclusions about  the cause of his premature death. Without further ado, I present to you the  National Geographic article by Dr. Hawass, which reads like a splendidly written story:

The study establishes that King Tut was the grandson of Amenhotep III. His father (identified as mummy KV55) was "almost certainly" identified as Akhenatun. It also showed (rather alarmingly) that Tut's mother (mummy KV35YL) was in fact the sister of KV55! In other words, the hailed pharaoh was a product of royal incest.  Here's the full family tree:
King Tut's family tree
Further analysis of the 2005 CT data revealed a crippling bone disease in the pharaoh's foot, that may not on its own been fatal. King Tut has always been depicted as a pharaoh who remains seated or holds a cane. We now know that this "was not a king who held a staff just as a symbol of power. This was a young man who needed a cane to walk." Additionally, genetic evidence acquired in this study seemed to indicate that King Tut was infected with a malarial parasite, which could have been partially responsible for his death.
The king resting on a cane while attended by his wife Ankhensenamun
It is possible that royal culture of incest and inbreeding would have been responsible for a highly diminished gene pool, making the royal lineage vulnerable to a variety of genetic defects. King Tut himself married his half sister and it is likely that the mummified fetuses found in his tomb are their children who were possibly stillborn due to congenital diseases.
Dr. Hawass' narrative ends here. King Tut's story, however, doesn't. But we can hope that some day science will take us to the point where his story will indeed be complete! For now, having read this, I feel thrilled to get reminded that real science can indeed be much more thrilling than TV science!


  1. wah.. sahi mein likh daali. good job :)

    Good to know all these things about Tutenkhamen.

  2. Really nice article - seems like you are getting into history:). I could not resist adding some of my thoughts here. So here I go :D

    You raised a very interesting point of "incest". In ancient Egypt as well as in Roman times, incest was pretty common in royal families. The kings in Egypt were living Gods and in Roman times, they were sons of Gods. They relied on incest to produce "pure" blood and some times to diffuse the fight for throne (Homosexuality was also used in Roman & Greek times for the later purpose). Similar practice was common in many other civilizations also where Kings were/are supposed to be living Gods or sons of Gods, for example, Japan (up to only a few generations back), ancient Arabs, etc. With the popularity of Christianity in West, incest became a crime. Due to the fear of reprisal from "heavy duty" practitioners of incest in Arab world, Muhammad could simply stop incest between blood brothers & sisters and allowed marriages between cousins. In India, it was crime since the advent of Vadic civilization (before that it is not known as no one could read Indus civilization "script"-if there is any!) - I guess, because kings were not Gods or sons of Gods but merely representative of Gods or Lord Vishnu. Hence, they could not produce "pure" blood via incest between already "impure". Of course, kings of ancient Egypt suffered from several genetic disorders (like extended limbs, distorted ankles, protruded head, etc) due to this practice of incest.

    Now, I really do not believe that King Tut was any great king - he got roughly 10 years to rule Egypt during which he was a mere teenager. During his rein, Egypt was almost in a "civil war" due to different religion practices "forced" by his parents (Moon worship vs. Sun worship). Fate (or alleged curse to tomb raiders) and media made him great- unlike his mother's (Nefertiti) grave, no one could really destroy his tomb.

    1. amazing article with lots of information

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the artice Joyita!! Thanks a lot for sharing it :)

  4. @Adarsh & Preeti: Thanks! Glad you guys liked it!

    @Praveen: The whole "pure blood" concept is very interesting. As far as the hype about King Tut is concerned, it's probably not so much for him having been an exceptionally great pharaoh. It was probably Akhenatun who was the religious radical and Tutankhamun might have followed his "dad's" footsteps. His fame in the modern world can largely be attributed to the fact that the discovery of his intact tomb was a major feat in Egyptology. The rest is popular craze fueled by the media.

    What I actually got excited about in all this is the clean science involved in putting the puzzle pieces together into what makes a thrilling story!

  5. Anonymous7:54 PM

    all ive seen is the mummy and thats when i becasme obessed with egypt so its awesome to learn things and to share them with thank u

  6. ankita11:36 PM

    nicely written but in school books these things should be added as the facts written there are brief &incomplete

  7. Anonymous6:56 PM

    Well said, Praveen! I was about to make the same comment as well, but I guess I'm not the only one! :)
    Anyways, great article, but I have one suggestion - you might want to mention that Tutankhamen restored the Old Religion, and that's ome of the reasons he is considered to be "great".

  8. Anonymous6:24 AM

    Hi im currently learning about this at school and just wanted to add that the man who took over from Tut was his (and his father's) advisor and re-maried tut's widowed wife. once agin with the lineage, Ankhensenamun was the granddaughter of the new pharaoh

  9. Anonymous4:14 AM

    good job !

  10. Awesome helps me with my studies in history