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Wednesday , February 17 , 2010
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Clues to Tut death and life
- Malaria, not intrigue, seen as cause of death

New Delhi, Feb. 16: Scientists have extracted fresh insights into the life and death of King Tutankhamun, ancient Egypt’s mummified pharaoh, whose demise 3,300 years ago has been a topic of intrigue and speculation for nearly nine decades.

Egyptian and European researchers who used tools of modern medicine and genetics to investigate Tutankhamun’s health and his lineage have now attributed his death to a combination of a severe form of malaria and a leg fracture.

Their studies based on genetic analysis of several mummies from his era also suggest for the first time that Tutankhamun’s parents were brother-and-sister, engaged in an incestuous relationship.

Tutankhamun is among the most famous of Egyptian pharaohs who reigned for nine years before he died at the age of 19 around 1324 BC. His tomb, discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings west of the Nile in central Egypt, is among the best preserved of royal tombs with a rich treasury of artefacts that has helped historians piece together fragments of his life.

But his relationships with the some of the other mummies in the valley and the cause of his death have remained mysteries — although some researchers have in the past speculated about congenital disease, murder, and a skull fracture.

Now, Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass and his colleagues have found evidence of severe bone disease in the foot, a fractured leg, and genetic signatures of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes cerebral malaria, in Tutankhamun’s remains. The new findings are described in the Journal of the American Medical Association to be released tomorrow.

Using genetic fingerprinting to study Tutankhamun and 10 other mummies, the researchers have also for the first time assigned identifies to hitherto anonymous mummies — Tutankhamun’s grandparents, parents, and even two unborn daughters.

The researchers have described Tutankhamun as a “young but frail king” who had multiple bone disorders and needed canes to walk because of bone loss and severe pain in his right foot and clubfoot on the left.

A leg fracture possibly through a fall might have led to a life-threatening condition when he also became infected with malaria, the researchers said. This is the oldest genetic evidence for malaria in precisely-dated mummies, they said.

“Individuals with fulminant malaria (the type caused by Plasmodium falciparum) as well as pre-existing bone disease are in a weakened condition,” said Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan who was not associated with the findings. “When experiencing the major trauma that a fracture represents, it can tip them over towards serious illness or death,” Markel told The Telegraph.

The genetic studies on the mummies directed by Carsten Pusch at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, have allowed scientists to draw a family tree of Tutankhamun, assigning names to unidentified mummies.

The researchers identified two mummies Yuya and Thuya as Tutankhamun’s great-grandparents, and Amenhotep-III and Tiye as his grandparents. The study has also shown that his own parents Akenhaten and an unnamed female mummy were siblings.

“This family tree is for me the most intriguing aspect of these findings,” said Markel. There is currently little documentation on the level of such consanguinity (mating across blood relations) among pharaohs, he said.

The genetic analysis also suggests that Tutankhamun, despite his ill health and early death, had probably fathered two stillborn female foetuses. An unidentified female mummy appears to be the mother of the two foetuses.

The study also found genetic residues of Plasmodium falciparum in three other mummies. Although ancient Egyptian texts do not mention illnesses with malaria symptoms such as high fever or chills, the researchers point out that marshy areas around the Nile would have been an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The large number of canes discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun support the idea that his bone disease had caused him to use walking sticks.

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