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DNA study of King Tut suggests he died from malaria, bone necrosis

By Srbui Karapetian

Feb. 24, 2010 9:20 p.m.

A new DNA study of the famous mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, or King Tut, and 11 other royal mummies reveals that he most likely died of complications from malaria and bone necrosis and also helps to determine relations in the royal line.

“What has happened in this research project is fundamental research which has refuted several existing theories and confirmed others. As such, the research is significant,” said professor of Egyptian archaeology Willeke Wendrich.

Wendrich made sure to note, however, that the findings should not be sensationalized in the media as a discovery but rather as a far-reaching attempt to test theories and answer questions.

The purpose of the study was to find particular pathological signs that could be attributed to all of the possible theories involving King Tut’s death, including murder, inherited disorders or infectious disease, according to the study’s publication in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The research team, led by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, included archaeologists and medical scientists from Egypt, Germany and Italy.

Such international cooperation is exactly what Wendrich foresees in the future for Egyptology and archaeology. She also noted that a large shift toward increased data sharing and availability of information online will accompany such recent advances in modern science.

During the study, which lasted from September 2007 to October 2009, scientists used genetic fingerprinting to construct a five-generation pedigree of Tutankhamun’s immediate lineage, according to the study published in the journal.

The team now believes the mummies KV55 and KV35YL, who were siblings, are the parents of King Tut.

“If the KV55 mummy is indeed Tutankhamun’s father, or Akhenaten, then we could say he did not suffer from weird body malformities,” said Kara Cooney, assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA and curator of the King Tut exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005.

Cooney found this especially important because it shows that Akhenaten, who is historically depicted with elongations of the neck and body, projected an ideological image of himself upon his people and was not naturally deformed.

She added that people argue that history and science have nothing to do with each other, but archaeology disproves that every day, and this DNA study uncovering information about King Tut’s lineage serves as proof.

The genetic analysis of Tutankhamun and his male relatives also revoked previous theories about inherited disorders that might have afflicted him and diagnosed the pharaoh with Kohler disease II, a rare bone disease caused by a temporary loss of blood supply to the navicular bone, a small bone found in the foot.

This alone could not have killed the boy ruler. After genetic testing found the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in King Tut’s body, the researchers ruled he died from bone necrosis in conjunction with the malarial infection.

While two years might seem like a long time to conduct DNA analysis, the risk of contamination in DNA research is enormous.

“This is painstaking work, which has to be duplicated in at least two laboratories,” Wendrich said.

However, DNA analysis can also be destructive, Cooney said. When a DNA sample is used, it cannot be resampled. For this reason, it is important that scientists do DNA work only when they are certain they will get results and have posed significant questions, she added.

Wendrich also agreed. New scientific methods, such as DNA research and isotope and residue analysis, are only of use if they are embedded in well-formulated archaeological questions. The questions raised are more important than the “great discoveries” made.

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Srbui Karapetian
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