Daily Archives: March 2, 2010

King Tut, Malaria, and DNA

King Tutankhamun has captured the world’s imagination from the moment Howard Carter unearthed his tomb in 1922. That he had opened the tomb of royalty was never questioned. The gold and jewels found within were astounding, particularly the jewel encrusted golden death mask. The Boy King ascended to the throne at age 9 and reigned for 9 years until his death in 1324 BC.

His life and death have not been without controversy. There have been many theories about who his parents were and how he actually died. There are many who believe that he was murdered. This speculation was mostly fueled by a hole found in the young man’s skull. Most now believe that this defect was postmortem as part of the embalming process.

Recently researchers have been conducting a series of DNA and radiological tests on Tut’s remains and they have uncovered some fascinating results. DNA evidence shows that he was indeed the son of the great Akhenaten, the Egyptian King who replaced Egyptian polytheism with a monotheistic religion. Even before this testing, most scholars believed that Akhenaten was his father but the identity of his mother had always been questioned. This new DNA evidence now suggests that she was his aunt, Akhenaten’s sister. This would not be unexpected as throughout history royal families have consistently inbred as a way of preserving linage, land, and wealth and the ancient Egyptians were no exception. An interesting finding was that the corpses of two fetuses were also found within Tut’s tomb and DNA testing suggests that one of these had been Tut’s own daughter.

The investigators also uncovered other things about the Boy King’s existence. He was plagued with a number of injuries, deformities, and diseases. Rather than a handsome young man, as he if often portrayed, it appears that he might have suffered from a cleft palate, a club foot, a spinal deformity, and Marfan’s Syndrome, entities that seemed to have run in his family. In addition he may have had an uncommon bone disorder known as Kohler’s Disease, which causes weakening of the bones over time. A healed leg fracture was also revealed. Most likely he had difficulty walking because of these musculoskeletal problems and this seems to be supported by the fact that a large number of walking canes were found in his tomb. Perhaps as many as 130. Since royalty is often buried with objects that are personally important to them, these canes must have been useful to the young man.

As for the cause of his death, DNA evidence suggested the presence of a malignant form of malaria known as Plasmodium falciparum in the young King’s brain This was also found in other mummies around that time.

Malaria (mal–aria) means “bad air.” In not so ancient times it was felt that the disease came from breathing air that was contaminated with some toxin or evil spirit. In various civilizations, city inhabitants would move out of swampy areas and up into the mountains in order to avoid living in the air around the swamps. This happened in ancient Rome as the wealthy moved into the hills to avoid the diseases that were felt to linger in the lower areas of the city. Swamp air has a distinctive odor and therefore it was logical for them to assume that this aromatic air might have something to do with malaria, which was much more common in these areas than it was at higher altitudes. We now know that the malarial mosquito lives in the swamps and it is this organism that passes the Plasmodium parasite from person to person. They obviously didn’t know that in ancient Egypt or even in Renaissance Europe.

Malaria infects 300 to 500 million and kills one million people each year, mostly children in the African continent where the disease is endemic (infects a large portion of the population). Those that don’t die, often become carriers of the disease. This means that they themselves are not gravely ill but they harbor the organism within their bloodstream. When a mosquito feeds on them it picks up the parasite and then, when it bites an uninfected person, passes the disease along. Millions of people carry a malarial organism within their bodies.

There are several types of malaria but that caused by Plasmodium falciparum is the most aggressive and the most dangerous. Since King Tut had the DNA of this type within his body and brain tissue, it is reasonable to assume that he was infected with the Plasmodium falciparum organism and indeed this may have caused his death. But maybe not.

The reason this question can’t be conclusively answered is that malaria might very well have been endemic in ancient Egypt and therefore finding it within Tut might or might not be related to his death. But the fact that he was infected with the more malignant type and the fact that the organism had invaded his brain certainly makes this as the cause of his death a distinct possibility. This is something that further research will have to determine.

For me, the fact that DNA can be extracted from a 3300-year-old mummy and analyzed this way is fascinating, maybe even astounding.

Fyrther Reading:

JAMA Article

NY Times Article

Dallas Morning News Article

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