Ever since I was very small, I had this huge passion for ancient Egypt. It seemed like such a mystical land, full of danger and wonders and adventure. Mummies were this insight into a bygone era – admittedly an insight into the 1% of the bygone era, but they were just like us.
Rameses V got smallpox, just like we would if smallpox was around today. The pharaohs carved their heads into cliffs before it was cool. They liked gold (we like gold!). Hatshepsut was an incredible badass (“Women can’t be pharaohs Oh look I’m wearing a beard, I must be a dude.”). And so on.
Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, source wikipedia.org
But everyone’s favourite has always been Tutankhamun. The boy-king, who ruled from ages 8 to 18, whose tomb was discovered by accident by Howard Carter and Lord Carnvarnon in the 1920s. We did SCIENCE on Tutankhamun in 2005, using a CT scan and modern forensic knowledge to investigate what killed him.
Tutankhamun’s death has been the source of speculation for some time, and it has been suggested he was assassinated. Tutankhamun’s tomb wasn’t as large as a pharoh’s should be, and his coffin had been manhandled quite a bit. The investigations in 2005 showed no significant signs of foul play, but the scan did show a badly broken leg.
Due to the predilection of the Egyptian royal families for incest, the idea that Tutankhamun had some form of a genetic disease is one that has been tossed around for some time.In 2010, a group of researchers performed an exhaustive study linking ancient DNA obtained from all the mummies within Tutankhamun’s tomb both to physical aspects, and what might have occurred back in antiquity (National Geographic) (1).
What do we know now?
Well, “know” is a bit of a strong word. We’re more certain that everyone, ever, always was related (not a huge surprise; in order to prevent dilution of the blood line, brothers married sisters a whole bunch).
It became more clear that Tutankhamun had a deformed left foot, perhaps explaining why he was so frail (as moving around would have been super painful), and there was some DNA from the malaria parasite amplified. That might suggest a combination of factors leading to Tutankhamun’s death, from the broken leg, potential infection, and co-infection with malaria; it’s something a modern-day person would have difficulty with, and we have quinine (an anti-malarial agent, found in small amounts in tonic water).
However, ancient DNA is a tricky beast, and all our methods are pretty biased towards modern DNA, and these are mummies that have been handled by a lot of people since 1920.
The fact that this information wasn’t a surprise gives some credibility to the findings, but it’s super important in ancient DNA analyses that you say every single thing you did to make sure your results were right; Hawass et al didn’t, so they got criticized a wee bit (2). Plus, there’s a bunch of evidence that suggests Egyptian mummies *shouldn’t* have DNA in them (3).
And let’s not even start on how it totally turns out that Hawass is the Hawass, the diva that revolutionized Egyptology and is so embroiled in politics in the way we totally pretend scientists aren’t. (And he has his own clothing line).
A publicity shot from the Zahi Hawass clothing line. Egyptology doesn’t have to look like anything except Indiana Jones, with Hawass.
1.Hawass Z, YZ Gad, S Ismail, R Khairat, D Fathalla, N Hasan, A Ahmed, H Elleithy, M Ball, F Gaballah, S Wasef, M Fateen, H Amer, P Gostner, A Selim, A Zink, CM Pusch (2010) Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family Jama-J Am Med Assoc 303(7): 638-647
2. Lorenzen, ED, E Willerslev (2010) King Tutankhamun’s Family and Demise Jama-J Am Med Assoc 303(24): 2471
3. Gilbert MT, Barnes I, Collins MJ, Smith C, Eklund J, Goudsmit J, Poinar H, Cooper A (2003) Long-term survival of ancient DNA in Egypt: response to Zink and Nerlich. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2005;128(1):110-114