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What DNA, CT scans, and archaeology tell us


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A finely carved wood sculpture of Tut shows the face of the recognizable, yet enigmatic pharaoh. (Photo: Courtesy Paula Reimer)

It was all settled. CT scans revealed that Tutankhamun had a nasty leg fracture, and in 2007 Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, rendered his verdict: "He was not murdered as many people thought. He had an accident when he was hunting in the desert. Falling from a chariot made this fracture in his left leg and this really is in my opinion how he died." Septicemia (blood infection) or a fat embolism (release of fat into the blood stream) was to blame, and science had, through Hawass, spoken.

Everyone duly recalibrated their images of Tut. Long dismissed as a minor, ineffectual child pharaoh, the "Boy King" was reimagined as an avid sportsman. Now, further analysis of Tut's CT scans, those of close relatives, and DNA studies may require another image makeover, thanks to results just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Hawass, Carsten Pusch (a DNA specialist from the University of Tübingen), and colleagues. But did the researchers get a little ahead of the evidence in some of their interpretations? The media, looking for short, snappy headlines, certainly did. The sportsman king and chariot fall were dropped. Now, Tut is a youth with a clubfoot and cleft palate, a "frail" and "sickly" teen, according to the headlines. "A sudden leg fracture, possibly introduced by a fall, might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred," write Hawass, Pusch, and colleagues.


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Tut hunts hippopotamus with a harpoon and line, a pursuit among Egyptian nobility. (Photo: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority, Courtesy NPS, Joe Kennedy, photographer)

In our story "Warrior Tut" (March/April), W. Raymond Johnson of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, offered a different view, noting that the throwsticks, spears, bows and arrows, and chariots in Tut's tomb had been used, showing the young pharaoh's athleticism. (Among the scenes from his tomb, Tut is shown on a speeding chariot hunting ostrich with bow and arrow.) Moreover, Johnson has identified sculptures showing Tut in battle against Egypt's foes, Nubians and Asiatics. Details—severed hands skewered on spears, an Asiatic leader held in a cage—are not known in any other Egyptian depiction, suggesting they represent real scenes rather than stock propaganda images. Did Tut lead his armies into the field? It could well be.

What about Tut's newly discovered disabilities? In fact, the cleft palate (not the same as cleft lip) had been noted when he was scanned back in 2005 and was characterized by the researchers then as "slight," so it isn’t news and wasn't debilitating. The JAMA report states flatly, "We identified several normal anatomical variants, such as an incomplete cleft palate." The clubfoot? That diagnosis may be okay, though more data than what’s been published would help support it (or not). The same goes for the identification of osteo-necrosis (dying off of tissue) in two bones of the left foot. But how debilitating it all was is open to question. The sum total is that Tut had a bum left foot—nothing to stop him from riding in his chariot on the hunt or into battle.

As for malaria, Tut's mummy and those of two of his great-grandparents and one other yielded genetic evidence of infection. Did it contribute to Tut's death? The JAMA paper says only, "When the infection occurred, its severity and whether it could have caused death...is not known."

Based on the DNA, Hawass and Pusch reconstructed Tut's family tree, identifying the mummy from Tomb 55 in the Valley of the Kings as Akhenaten, his father, and the one known as the Younger Lady from Tomb 35 (not the famous Nefertiti) as his mother. But several earlier examinations concluded the Tomb 55 mummy was around 20 years old—a decade too young to be Akhenaten. Although they now say this mummy was in his mid-30s or older, appropriate for Akhenaten, the current researchers offer no evidence for it.

Identification of Tut's mother as the Younger Lady, said to be an unknown, full sister of Akhenaten is not impossible, but only two queens of Akhenaten's appear prominently in the archaeological record, Nefertiti and Kiya. More startling is the single line in an appendix, not elaborated upon, which says, "The head injuries of the Younger Lady...were lethal." Tut's mom a trauma victim?

We know more about Tut than ever, but do we have a "true" picture? Was Tut a man of action or a teenage basket case? How did he die? Who were his parents? It is too early to conclude, as Hawass did back in 2005 when the CT scans of Tut were done: "These results will close the case of Tutankhamun, and the king will not need to be examined again. We should now leave him at rest." They won't, but we should.

Mark Rose is AIA online editorial director.

  • For more on Tutankhamun and the exhibition, see TutWatch.

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