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King Tut's mundane death

Malaria and a broken leg, not murder, probably led to the demise of Egypt's famed boy king. New testing also shows that he had a cleft palate, clubfoot and degenerative bone disease.

February 17, 2010|By Thomas H. Maugh II

Archaeologists have weaved elaborate tales of intrigue and deceit about the death at age 19 of Egypt's fabled boy king Tutankhamen, with theories that include poisoning by his regent, Aye, and a blow to the head by thugs hired by Aye, but new research indicates his cause of death was probably more mundane -- complications from a broken leg and malaria.

Using a new approach for analyzing mummies called molecular Egyptology, an international team of researchers found DNA traces of malaria parasites in the boy-king's brain, suggesting an infection was a major factor in his death.

Examination of Tut's body and his genes confirmed that he suffered from a cleft palate and clubfoot, and showed he had a degenerative bone condition called Kohler disease II.

But he did not suffer from Marfan syndrome or other diseases that would have feminized his appearance, as many researchers have speculated from observing busts from the period.

It now appears that those busts were simply a distinct artistic style chosen by the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom, who ruled from 1550 BC to about 1295 BC.

By matching Tut's DNA to samples from other mummies, the team was able to identify one -- previously known only as KV55 -- as the pharaoh Akhenaten and the probable father of Tut; another as Tiye, Akhenaten's mother and Tut's grandmother; and a third as a sister of Akhenaten who was probably Tut's mother.

The results, published in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., show that DNA analysis of mummies can provide valuable insights, said archaeologist Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and leader of the research team.

"It is very important to have more empirical data about this body," said archaeologist Emily Teeter of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who was not involved in the research. "The period is well documented [with artifacts] but not well understood."

She said the demonstration that Akhenaten was probably Tut's father also had "ramifications for Egyptian chronology." Researchers had not known whether Tut's father was Amenhotep III or Amenhotep IV, who took the name Akhenaten.

Tut became pharaoh in 1333 BC at age 10 and ruled for only nine years, a period during which most of the governing was probably performed by his regent, the commoner Aye (pronounced "I"). It was common for millenniums for regents to rule when a new king was too young.

Tut was considered a minor king. Little was known about him until archaeologist Howard Carter found his riches-filled tomb in 1922, at which point he became an international celebrity.

The find also triggered much speculation. Busts showed a feminized face and gynecomastia, or feminized breasts, leading to the hotly contested speculation by a few that Tut and his family suffered from a disorder such as Marfan syndrome.

But the new study, performed at a specialized ancient-DNA laboratory at the University of Tubingen in Germany, showed no evidence of genetic conditions in Tut's family that would lead to such characteristics.

The first examinations of Tut's skull many years ago showed a fracture, and historians wove elaborate tales about it. In 1998, archaeologist Bob Brier of Long Island University published "The Murder of Tutankhamen," speculating that the killing was done by Aye's henchmen so he could continue to rule.

But CT scans performed in 2005 showed that the fracture actually occurred long after death, most likely during the embalming process. The scans also showed a cleft palate and a fracture in his left femur, or thighbone, that most likely occurred a few days before his death.

The new testing did show the presence of several genes from the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in Tut and three other mummies, including his grandmother, suggesting the disease was a fairly common problem among the Egyptian royalty.

That infection, combined with necrosis, or death of bones, caused by Kohler disease could have weakened him severely, the authors speculated.

The broken leg, possibly from a fall, could then have been the final event that led to his death.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the new findings was that Tut suffered from clubfoot, Teeter said. "Photographs of the mummy taken when it was unwrapped in 1925 don't show anything that would suggest a clubfoot, so this is a real surprise."

The team says that the presence of many canes in the tomb support the idea that he was disabled, but Teeter noted that the canes "were primarily decorative, and every well-dressed Egyptian man carried a cane -- just like a man in the 1940s with a pocket square."

Two one-hour documentaries about the researchers' studies will be presented on the Discovery Channel on Sunday and Monday.

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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