King Tut: The science behind the discovery

The ground-breaking DNA study not only proved that King Tut wasn't murdered. It marks a new chapter in the application of modern science to ancient history.

By , Correspondent

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    In this Nov. 4, 2007 photo, Egypt's antiquities chief Dr. Zahi Hawass, center, supervises the removal of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. A DNA study of the 3,300-year-old pharaoh found that Tutankhamun, the offspring of a brother and sister, suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, and died from complications from a broken leg and malaria.
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Recent discoveries about King Tutankhamun’s death may tell us even more about modern science than about the boy king himself.

What’s fascinating about the recent discoveries regarding King Tutankhamun isn’t simply that the pharaoh had malaria, but that researchers could determine the exact conditions of the life and death of a 3,300-year-old relic using modern science.

The two-year investigation into Tut’s death, which is the first DNA study ever conducted on an ancient Egyptian mummy, determined that the famed pharaoh had a cleft palate and club foot, and died from complications from a broken leg and malaria. It also revealed that Tut’s parents were brother and sister.

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Besides revealing the conditions of Tut’s health and ancestry, the study marks a new chapter in the application of modern science to ancient history, says Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“This is rather unprecedented,” says Dr. Markel, who was not involved in the study. “It’s a perfect combination of great science, great international cooperation, and well-preserved bodies.... The fact that you had all these ducks in a row is fascinating.”

The research was an international and interdisciplinary collaboration led by Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, involving archeologists, medical scientists, and anthropologists from Egypt, Germany, and Italy. The study's findings were announced Tuesday and were published in the current issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Modern tools, ancient remains

The 21st century tools researchers used to investigate Tut’s death are a far cry from the elementary tools once associated with archeology.

There will always be a place for hand picks, trowels, and soil sifters. But the modern archeological toolbox – like the one scientists used to study Tut – includes microscopes, X-ray machines, and DNA and chemical analysis.

Here’s a look at some methods scientists may have used to investigate Tut’s death.

Medical scientists used a “state-of-the-art CAT-scanner” to perform initial radiological analysis on Tut, says Markel. “You can tell a lot about the appearance of a person by shape of his or her bones,” he says. Scientists may have discovered Tut’s cleft palate and club foot using X-ray scans.

Scientists also used bore needles to collect samples. Those samples – which were particularly well-preserved thanks to the ancient Egyptians’ masterful mummification – contain the real treasure for scientists: DNA.

Using DNA analysis, researchers were able to achieve several breakthroughs. Scientists found DNA from the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in Tut’s body, indicating that he suffered from a particularly virulent strain of the disease. This is the oldest genetic proof of malaria in precisely dated mummies, according to the study.

The DNA analysis of Tut and 11 other mummies also offered insights into Tut’s lineage, helping researchers establish Tut’s family tree spanning five generations. For the first time, scientists were able to identify Tut’s mother and father, who appear to be siblings.

Finally, scientists used DNA analysis to rule out existing theories about Tut’s health. By studying his and his male relative’s Y-chromosomes, scientists laid to rest theories that Tut and his father Akhenaten were hermaphrodites or androgynous in appearance. They also ruled out bubonic plague or tuberculosis.

Perhaps more important, the tests also ruled out foul play in Tut’s death.

New age of historical research

The research has applications beyond understanding Tut’s life and death, says Markel.

“As historians, we’re entering a new age of historical research,” he says. “Now we have other tools we can use to better recreate or reinterpret the past. This may even pay off in terms of understanding health and disease today.”

But the use of modern science in investigating ancient life raises ethical questions.

“With great tools come great responsibilities,” says Markel. “Disturbing the dead is taboo across many societies, many time periods, and for good reason.”

For such research to be justified, he adds, it must answer one of two questions: Does it change our interpretation of the past? Does it help us better understand health and disease today?

This study, says Markel, answered both.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated Dr. Markel's name.]

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