DNA Detective Work Sheds Light on King Tut's Life, DeathUpdated: 55 minutes ago
(Feb. 16) -- The most famous of all pharaohs was a frail and sickly king who walked with a cane and suffered from a painful bone disease and a club foot. But it may have been a severe case of malaria that finally killed him, according to groundbreaking new genetic analysis.
A team of researchers from Egypt, Germany and Italy also developed a definitive family tree for King Tutankhamun, including the identity of his father and grandparents and the two still-born fetuses found in his tomb. The genealogy also confirms that Tut's family was largely the product of in-breeding.
Tutankhamun was only 19 when he died, circa 1324 BC, after a nine-year reign over Egypt's New Kingdom. His death marked the end of his family's 200-year rule, which was then replaced by a military regime.
Ben Curtis, AP
King Tut may have ultimately died of malaria, according to a new genetic analysis. Here, the pharaoh's mummy is removed from its sarcophagus in Egypt in 2007.
More than 3,000 years later, Tut and 10 other royal mummies have undergone a two-year examination by the research team. The work has been ongoing at a $5 million, custom-designed DNA lab in Cairo, paid for by the Discovery Channel, which will broadcast two films about the project.
"It's incredibly difficult to obtain the kind of access to the mummies we did, and this has been years in the making," Dr. Carsten Pusch, lead study author from the University of Tübingen, said in an interview with AOL News. "The Egyptians are very proud of their history; they don't want foreign people invading that."
The DNA tests determined that King Tut had a clubbed left foot and no use of his right foot, because he suffered from a lack of blood flow that leads to collapsed bones (avascular necrosis). Those ailments explain why 130 wooden sticks and staffs were found in his tomb.
The conditions would have weakened his body and immune system, but they wouldn't have been enough to kill him. Rather, the team suspects that Tut sustained a fall -- which explains the head trauma and broken leg discovered in a 1968 X-ray -- and succumbed to a serious malarial infection.
Tut and four other mummies tested positive for malaria tropica, the most severe form of the illness.
The Nile region where Tut lived was marshy and humid -- the perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which carry the malaria virus. DNA evidence is likely the strongest possible evidence available in investigating such an ancient mystery, but Pusch admits that a definitive cause of death is impossible.
"Announcing a sure cause of death, 3,000 years afterward, is too much," he said. "What we do know is that King Tut suffered from many illnesses that may have combined to lead to such a premature death.
"Everybody knows the golden mask, but his was not an easy, glamorous life."
Until the latest tests were performed, the king's lineage also was widely disputed. These tests confirm that his father was Akhenaten, a revolutionary pharaoh known for introducing monotheistic religion. Tut's mother, whom many speculate was Queen Nefertiti, remains unidentified -- still known as Mummy KV35YL.
DNA analysis has yet to identify KV35YL but did conclude that the unnamed mummy is the sister of Akhenaten, as well as his mating partner.
Some also speculated that Queen Tiye, a wife of Akhenaten whose body was also embalmed alongside Tut's, was the young pharaoh's mother. In fact, the tests revealed, she was his grandmother.
The two still-born bodies in Tut's tomb, once thought to have been his half-siblings, have been identified as his children.
Pusch suspects that a long history of in-breeding might be responsible for the premature deaths of Tut's offspring.
"In-breeding in successive generations reduces genetic fitness," he said. "This would also explain many of Tut's own physical ailments, which might be caused by the sibling relationship between his mother and father."
Researchers have only scratched the surface of readily available DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. Work at Cairo's DNA laboratory will continue, and Pusch hopes to find secrets from other famous dynasties. King Tut and Co. offered readily available DNA samples, but Pusch cautions that other bodies might not be so well-preserved.
"If it were a question of being overly invasive, then we'd stop the testing," he said. "Save those secrets for future generations, when they can use new advancements to cause less damage."
Knowing the secrets of King Tut's life, lineage and death lends a new perspective to royal life in Ancient Egypt, if you ask Pusch. "At first, he was a specimen in a museum, but now he's become a person I know intimately," he said. "His was a painful life and one of suffering.
"Not very royal, is it?"