DNA study unravels pharaoh’s secrets

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, was a frail boy who suffered from a cleft palate and club foot.

Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass speaks at the moving of the linen-wrapped mummy of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings in Luxor

Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass speaks at the moving of the linen-wrapped mummy of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings in Luxor

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, was a frail boy who suffered from a cleft palate and club foot. He died of complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria and his parents were most likely brother and sister.

Two years of DNA testing and CT scans on Tut’s 3,300-year-old mummy and 15 others are helping end many of the myths surrounding the boy king. While a comparatively minor ruler, he has captivated the public since the 1922 discovery of his tomb, which was filled with a stunning array of jewels and artifacts, including a golden funeral mask.

The study, which will be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, provides the firmest family tree yet for Tut. The tests pointed to Pharaoh Akhenaten, who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion to worship one god, as Tut’s father. His mother was one of Akhenaten’s sisters, it said.

Tut, who became pharaoh at age 10 in 1333 B.C., ruled for just nine years at a pivotal time in Egypt’s history. Speculation has long swirled over his death at 19. A hole in his skull fueled speculation he was murdered, until a 2005 CT scan ruled that out, finding the hole was likely from the mummification process. The scan also uncovered the broken leg.

The newest tests paint a picture of a pharaoh whose immune system was likely weakened by congenital diseases. His death came from complications from the broken leg — along with a new discovery: severe malaria.

The team said it found DNA of the malaria parasite in several of the mummies, some of the oldest ever isolated.

“A sudden leg fracture possibly introduced by a fall might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred,” the article said.

“Tutankhamun had multiple disorders . . . He might be envisioned as a young but frail king who needed canes to walk,” it said.

The revelations are in stark contrast to the popular image of a graceful boy-king as portrayed by the dazzling funerary artifacts in his tomb that later introduced much of the world to the glory of ancient Egypt.

They also highlighted the role genetics play in some diseases. The members of the 18th dynasty were closely inbred and the DNA studies found several genetic disorders in the mummies tested such as scoliosis, curvature of the spine, and club feet.

Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said some of King Tut’s ailments including his bone disease likely were the result of his parents’ incestuous marriage. Children born to parents who are so closely related to each other would be prone to genetic problems, he said.

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