New study explains demise, parentage of King Tut

By Paul Schemm
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Egypt's famed King Tutankhamun had a cleft palate and a club foot, which probably forced him to walk with canes, and died from complications from a broken leg exacerbated by malaria, according to the most extensive study ever of his more than 3,300-year-old mummy.

The findings are based on two years of DNA testing and CT (computed tomography) scans on 16 mummies, including those of Tutankhamun and his family, said the team that carried out the study. An article on the findings is to be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study establishes the clearest family tree for Tut, indicating for the first time that he was the child of a brother-sister union.

The study says Tut's father was probably Akhenaten, a pharaoh who tried to revolutionize ancient Egyptian religion and force his people to worship one god. The mummy shown by DNA to be that of Tut's mother turned out to be a sister of Akhenaten's, although she has not been identified.

Tut, who became pharaoh at age 10 in 1333 B.C., ruled for nine years at a pivotal time in Egypt's history. Although he was a comparatively minor king, the 1922 discovery of his tomb, which was filled with stunning artifacts, including the famed golden funeral mask, made him known the world over.

Speculation had long swirled over why the boy king died so young, at about 19. A hole in his skull fueled speculation that he was murdered, until a 2005 CT scan ruled that out, finding that the hole probably resulted from the mummification process. The scan also uncovered the broken leg.

In contrast to the golden splendor that Tut was buried with, he is revealed in the newest scans and DNA tests to have been a sickly teen, weakened by congenital illnesses and done in by complications from the broken leg aggravated by severe brain malaria.

The team said it isolated DNA of the malaria parasite in several of the family's mummies, including Tut's -- the oldest such discovery.

"A sudden leg fracture possibly introduced by a fall might have resulted in a life threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred," the JAMA article says. "Tutankhamun had multiple disorders. . . . He might be envisioned as a young but frail king who needed canes to walk."

Like his father, Tutankhamun had a cleft palate. He also had a club foot and Kohler's disease, in which lack of blood flow was slowly destroying the bones of his left foot -- an often painful condition, the study says. It says that 130 walking sticks and canes were found in Tut's tomb, some with traces of wear.

-- Associated Press

© 2010 The Washington Post Company