What Really Happened to Egypt's Boy King?

New Research Unlocks Clues to Ancient Mysteries

by Annie Shao, age 17

In 1922, just as the archaeologist Howard Carter was about to give up his search, an undisturbed tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh was discovered. It was the tomb of King Tutankhamun, or King Tut for short, a young ruler from Egypt’s 18th dynasty.

Since then, many mysteries have revolved around King Tut: Who were his parents? Why was his burial chamber less grand than most pharaohs’? And perhaps the most perplexing, how did he die?   

In 2007, scientists from Egypt and Germany conducted a study to try to answer some of these questions. Heading this project was Zahi Hawass of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and Carsten Pusch of the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Human Genetics.   

During Tut’s rule, Egypt was prosperous. Its military and foreign policy influence was recognized in Asia and the Mediterranean. The royal court had a multitude of monuments and temples built— a physical indication of their wealth and power.   

Prior to Tut’s rule, however, the country had one of its largest religious disputes. One of Tut’s predecessors, Amenhotep IV, who ruled around 1353 B.C., vastly changed Egypt’s religion. He declared Aten, the sun-disk god, more important than Amun, the king of the gods. Since religion played a large role in ancient Egyptian life, this change was jarring.

Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and changed Egypt’s capital city from Thebes to a city named after himself near Cairo. During his reign, many temples fell to ruins. After his death, a pharaoh named Smenkhkare ruled for an uneventful two or three years.   

King Tut’s reign started after Smenkhkare’s. Since he was only ten years old at the time, King Tut was likely controlled by his advisors. Under his advisors’ command, Tutankhamun reversed Akhenaten’s reforms, reestablished Thebes as the capital, promoted Amun again and restored the ruined temples.    

Historians believe that despite his current fame, King Tut was not an influential or powerful ruler at the time. The young king was best known for accomplishments that were not his own ideas, like his reversals of Akhenaten’s changes.   

Scientists confirmed that King Tut ruled for nine years until his death at the age of 19. To scientists, his death appeared to be unexpected, as evidenced by his burial chamber. Originally one built for a commoner, it was quickly remodeled to suit a king. The circumstances of his death are also shrouded in controversy. Because of a mysterious hole in his skull, some researchers think King Tut was murdered. Others speculate that poison or various accidents were the cause of death.   

Hawass and Pusch’s study aimed to settle some of the mysteries of King Tut. They used genetic fingerprinting to determine Tut’s family tree. Eleven royal mummies of King Tut’s time, found in the famous Valley of the Kings, were chosen for testing—
including Tut himself.   

The DNA used in these experiments came from 55 mummy bone biopsies, meaning cells from the mummies’ bones were taken to be examined. In order to decrease error and contamination, the samples were sent to two different labs and only data that was confirmed by both labs could be considered valid.

Using DNA testing, the team was able to reveal information on Tutankhamun’s lineage. The team determined that a mummy called KV55 (King’s Valley, grave number 55) was King Tut’s father. Previous research indicated that KV55 was the son of Amenhotep III. Scientists also knew that Amenhotep III’s son was Akhenaten. With this information, the researchers could conclude with 99 percent certainty that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father and Amenhotep III was his grandfather.    

The fact that Tutankhamun and KV55 both had the same blood type, a slightly cleft palate (a split in the roof of the mouth) and a hereditary overbite support this theory. DNA testing also revealed that King Tut’s parents were siblings. The inbreeding was not earth-shaking to the team; ancient Egyptian royalty often married close blood relatives in order to keep the royal wealth in the family. It was also the way of their gods, who would procreate with their own brothers and sisters. Likewise, King Tut’s wife, Ankhesenamun, was his half-sister. King Tut fathered her two stillborn daughters, who were buried with him.   

In further investigation of King Tut’s death, the researchers discovered evidence that the hole in his skull was created during his mummification, so murder and violence were ruled out.

Perhaps due to inbreeding, King Tut had many birth defects, among them deformed toe bones and a clubfoot, a birth defect that causes the foot to be twisted at an angle or out of shape. CT scans showed that he also had a non-genetic bone loss disorder in his left foot, possibly Köhler disease or Freiberg-Köhler syndrome. These diseases destroy bone tissue by temporarily shutting off blood flow. This meant that from the age of three King Tut’s left foot would have been constantly swollen and painful. Indeed, most paintings of him show him using a walking stick. The 130 walking sticks in his tomb confirm the fact that Tut’s foot prevented him from walking freely.    

Other tests revealed a severe malaria-causing parasite called Plasmodium falciparum in King Tut’s bone marrow. The team speculates that while malaria did not directly kill Tut, it did contribute to his death by weakening his immune system.    

The final blow leading to King Tut’s demise was a fracture in his left leg. According to the scans, this fracture never healed. Hawass says that Tut’s immune system, already weak, was unable to fight an infection caused by the fracture. This may have caused septicemia, a bacterial overload in the blood, which results in organ failure and death.   

Although the Hawass and Pusch research team tried to limit error in their data and offer scientifically sound conclusions, there are still doubts concerning their research. Some specialists question the viability of the DNA samples used. They assert that due to its age it could have been damaged or contaminated even with careful procedures. Others are skeptical of Hawass and Pusch’s conclusions; scientists from the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Germany believe King Tut suffered from sickle-cell anemia, rather than Köhler disease, while scientists at Stanford University Medical Center doubt that King Tut had a clubfoot.   

Despite the criticism, Hawass and the other researchers still strongly believe in their conclusions. They argue that the advanced technology used in their procedures provided accurate conclusions on things like the mummies’ DNA. Their counterargument for the sickle-cell anemia theory is that this hereditary disease was not found in King Tut’s relatives, so it is unlikely he had it.   

Whether you believe them or not, Hawass and Pusch’s findings will have a huge impact on Egyptology. Using new techniques to decipher history, they have solved some of the major mysteries of the famous Boy King; techniques that could be useful in learning more about other ancient civilizations.

[Sources: Science Illustrated; mayoclinic.com]

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