Howard Carter was famed for discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Ever since then the race has been on amongst scholars and scientists to discover why the 19-year old Ancient Egyptian ‘boy king’ died at such a young age. He ruled for only 10 years until 1323BC, over 3,000 years ago.
Contrary to what many people may imagine to be a life of privilege and indulgences, Tutankhamun probably lived a life interrupted by ill health. It has been discovered using sophisticated DNA tests that Tutankhamun’s parents were brother and sister which most likely lead to Tutankhamun having a weakened immune system and inheriting a rare bone condition.
These conditions were debilitating but they did not lead directly to his death. The bone disease may have caused the boy king to suffer from club foot and indeed canes were found that were probably used by the king for support.
DNA Tests prove Lineage
For two years the scientists worked at establishing the boy king’s lineage, health history and cause of death. In early 2010 they caused a sensation by publishing their results in the peer-reviewed JAMA.
These scientists believe that it was a particularly nasty bout of a strain of malaria called malaria tropica that eventually claimed the life of the young prince.
Sophisticated and Innovative DNA Tests
These discoveries have been made possible thanks to highly sophisticated and innovative DNA tests employed by Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and the rest of the Egyptian and German team of scientists.
Up until now the mummies have held on to their secrets because scientists have failed to obtain samples of undamaged DNA from the tissues of the mummified remains. Ancient Egyptian embalming techniques used damaging resins which, whilst preserving the body chemically, damaged the cells and inside the nucleus which houses the all-important DNA or ‘blueprint’ for the young king. The team managed for the first time to gather samples from mitochondrial DNA and nucleic DNA, be they in minute amounts, thanks largely to recent technological advances in forensic sciences.
A DNA fingerprint was eventually established for Tutankhamun. Everyone has a unique DNA fingerprint (except identical twins). This is because half the DNA is inherited from the mother and half from the father. Regions of DNA are therefore shared by the parents and their offspring and it is by comparing the pattern of DNA from mummies that the scientists are able to establish relationships.
DNA Tests Miraculous
That a DNA fingerprint was established at all is in itself a miraculous achievement as the amounts of intact DNA isolated from the mummy were miniscule and the routine amplification method used by laboratories worldwide to establish paternal relationships and to link a suspect to a crime scene was simply not powerful enough. It was innovations in this polymerase chain reaction (known as PCR) that allowed Dr Pusch and his team to duplicate the tiny fragments of DNA to a level where it was possible to employ conventional genetic testing techniques.
The scientists report that this is a pioneering result for the multidisciplinary field of paleogenetics and that it may eventually lead to a new field of science called ‘molecular Egyptology’. Further, the scientists claim that their study has shown the feasibility of gathering more data on Pharaonic kinship and diseases from genetic samples that can be employed in future investigations of ‘mummy mysteries’.
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