DNA and CT scan analysis of the mummy of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamun (ca. 1333-1323 BC) and of mummies either known or believed to be members of his immediate family have revealed startling new evidence for the young king’s lineage and cause of death. An additional outcome of the new study, in which DNA analysis was able to be used effectively on ancient Egyptian mummies for the first time, is that several previously unidentified mummies can now be given names. These studies were carried out by Egyptian scientists and international consultants a as part of the Family of Tutankhamun Project, under the leadership of Dr. Zahi Hawass. These findings have been published by JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, in their February 17, 2010, edition (Volume 303, no. 7).
The principal conclusions made by the team are that Tutankhamun’s father was the “heretic” king, Akhenaten, whose body is now almost certainly identified with the mummy from KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings. His mother, who still cannot be identified by name, is the “Younger Lady” buried in the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35). The mummy of the “Elder Lady” from the same tomb can now be conclusively identified as Tutankhamun’s grandmother, Queen Tiye. New light was shed on the cause of death for Tutankhamun with the discovery of DNA from the parasite that causes malaria; it is likely that the young king died from complications resulting from a severe form of this disease.
The name and treasures of Tutankhamun are famous around the world. He came to the throne as a child, and ruled Egypt for almost ten years at the end of the 18th Dynasty, during a period -- over 3000 years ago -- in which Egypt controlled a vast empire. His immediate predecessors on the throne of Egypt were Amenhotep III, and Akhenaten, Amenhotep III’s son by his chief queen Tiye. Akhenaten is remembered as the world’s first monotheist. He and his beautiful wife Nefertiti abandoned the pantheon previously worshiped by Egyptians in favor of the disk of the sun, the Aten, closed the great state temples and moved the ceremonial capital of the country from Thebes in southern Egypt to the remote Middle Egyptian site now known as El-Amarna.
The end of Akhenaten’s life is shrouded in mystery, but either immediately orwithin a few years after his death, Tutankhamun had taken the throne. By the second year of his reign, he had begun to move the court back to the traditional religious capital of Thebes and reinstate the old religion.
For decades, since the spectacular 1922 discovery of his intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter, scholars have debated Tutankhamun’s parentage, with the principal candidates proposed being Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and a king named Smenkhkare about whom almost nothing is known, but who seems to have ruled either during or just after the end of Akhenaten’s reign. Possible mothers mentioned most often in the Egyptological literature are Amenhotep III’s great wife, Tiye, one of Akhenaten’s wives, or Smenkhkare’s queen, probably the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
To explore this question, the Family of Tutankhamun Project studied Tutankhamun’s mummy, and ten other mummies either known or believed to be closely related to him. Included were the mummies of the parents of Queen Tiye, Yuya and Tjuya; the mummy of Amenhotep III; an anonymous male mummy found in KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings, a cache of material from the Royal Tomb at Akhenaten’s capital of Amarna; two anonymous female mummies -- the “Elder Lady,” and the “Younger Lady,” discovered hidden, along with the bodies of a number of New Kingdom pharaohs and their families, in the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings (KV 35); two anonymous female mummies thought perhaps to be 18th Dynasty queens from a small uninscribed tomb, referred to as KV21A and KV21B. A group of five royal mummies from an earlier period were used as the control group.
The primary analysis was carried out in a newly-built DNA laboratory at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo dedicated to ancient DNA; this was donated to the project by Discovery. Two types of DNA analysis were performed on samples taken from the bones of these mummies: analysis of specific nuclear DNA sequences from the Y-chromosome, which is passed directly from father to son, to study the paternal line; and genetic fingerprinting from the autosomal DNA of the nuclear genome that does not directly decide a person’s sex. To authenticate the DNA results, the analyses were repeated and independently replicated in a newly equipped ancient DNA laboratory staffed by a separate group of personnel. The CT scans were carried out with a movable multi-slice CT unit C130 KV, 124-130 ms, 014-3 mm slice thickness, Siemens Somatom Emotion 6 donated to the project by Siemens and the National Geographic Society.
Both the Y-chromosome analysis and the genetic fingerprinting were performed successfully, and have allowed the creation of a five-generation kindred for the young king. The analysis proves conclusively that Tutankhamun’s father was the mummy found in KV 55. The project’s CT scan of this mummy provides an age at death of between 45 and 55 for this mummy. Most earlier forensic studies had put forth an age of 20-25, which would be too young for Akhenaten, who came to the throne as an adult and ruled for 17 years. The new CT scan proves that this mummy is almost certainly Akhenaten himself, as the Egyptological evidence from the tomb has long suggested. In support of this lineage, the DNA also traces a direct line from Tutankhamun through the KV 55 mummy to Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep III. DNA shows that the mother of the KV 55 mummy is the “Elder Lady” from KV 35. This mummy is the daughter of Yuya and Tjuya, and thus definitively identified as Amenhotep III’s great queen Tiye.
Another important result from the DNA analysis is that the “Younger Lady” from KV 35 has been positively identified as Tutankhamun’s mother. The project is not yet able to identify her by name, although the DNA studies also show that she was the daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye and thus Akhenaten’s full sister. Thus Tutankhamun’s only grandparents, on both his paternal and maternal sides, were Amenhotep III and Tiye.
Two stillborn fetuses were found mummified and hidden away in a chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Preliminary DNA analysis supports the Egyptological belief that these were children of the young king’s. This analysis has also suggested a mummy known as KV21A, a royal female whose identity was previously completely unknown, as the most likely mother of these children and thus as Tutankhamun’s wife. As Tutankhamun’s only known consort was Ankhsenamun, the daughter of Akhenaten and his chief queen Nefertiti, further study of this mummy should help to illuminate further the complex relationships within this family.
The project studied the CT scans of the family carefully to look for inherited disorders, such as Marfan syndrome and gynecomastia/craniosynostoses syndromes, that have been previously postulated based on representations in Egyptian art. No evidence was found for any of these diseases, thus the artistic conventions followed by the Amarna period royal family were most likely chosen for religious and political reasons.
Another important result of the DNA studies was the discovery of material from Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoon that causes malaria, in the body of Tutankhamun. Medicinal foodstuffs (i.e., drugs to fight fever and pain) found within the tomb support the team’s contention that the young king suffered from a severe malarial infection. The CT scan also revealed that the king had a lame foot, caused by avascular bone necrosis. This conclusion is supported Egyptologically by the presence of over one hundred walking sticks in the tomb and by images of the king performing activities such as hunting while seated. The project believes that Tutankhamun’s death was most likely a result of the malaria coupled with his generally weak constitution. The CT scan of the pharaoh earlier confirmed the presence of an unhealed break in the king’s left thigh bone; the team speculates that the king’s weakened state may have led to a fall, or that a fall weakened his already fragile physical condition.