Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tutankhamun and his DNA

Ancient Egypt is one of my early loves. I read avidly about it when I was little, learned the folktales and the myths, read everything E. A. Wallis Budge ever wrote (which gets me the occasional laugh from Egyptologists), read my Charles Piazzi Smyth, even Paul Brunton's A Search in Secret Egypt, which I practically memorized. I learned elementary Ancient Egyptian at night school, and went to Egypt in the early eighties to see it for myself.

Of course, I caught the Tutankhamun Exhibition when it rolled into London in the early Seventies. The story of the tragic young boy king, dead at nineteen, and his mysterious father, who denied the pantheon of Egyptian Gods and worshipped one true god (forcing his frail young son to frantically back-track when he was on his own, as the powerful priests of the other gods reasserted themselves) is endlessly fascinating.

Here in the twenty-tens we have technology that would seem indistinguishable from magic to Howard Carter, the discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb, and would seem farfetched even to the writers of the various catalogues of the 1970's exhibitions. For the Egyptian authorities have just tested the DNA of the boy king and some associated mummies, and come up with "wonderful things", as Carter might have said.

The study is published in JAMA, but there is a write up at National Geographic.

Brother-sister mating: not usually good for you even if your father is a powerful Sith Lord Pharoah who brought prosperity to your land.
Tutankhamun was born around 3,300 years ago, the son of Amenhotep IV. His father had wrenched Egypt into worshipping Aten, the creator, alone, rather than the myriad gods and goddesses previously honored, some locally, some nationally. His father's preferred name was therefore Akhenaten, "In the service of Aten". Tutankhamun did not succeed his father directly, and the records of the Amarna dynasty, as this family was known, read like a soap opera crossed with Battlestar Galactica.

The new news includes evidence that Tutankhamun died of malaria - but since when do rich 19 year old people die of malaria? They did in this family. Here's why. According to the DNA evidence, his mother and father were brother and sister.

Dad Akhenaten is now identified as "mummy kv57", and Tutankhamun's grandfather, Amenhotop III, is identified as 'mummy kv37". Amenhotep III's wife, Queen Tiye, is the mummy "Elder Lady". One of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)'s wives is identified as the mummy "Younger Lady".

Genetic tests show that both Akhenaten and his wife, Younger Lady, were children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. They were Tutankhamun's parents. This overturns the theory that another wife, Nefertiti, was Tutankhamun's mother, and instead makes Tutankhamun the product of brother/sister incest - not uncommon in Egyptian Royals at this time. Akhenaten's sister-wife was not the chief wife. Although a daughter of Pharoah Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, like Akhenhaten, this young woman went into the pool of minor wives for the new pharoah. The brother became pharoah, but the sister was not special.

This, more than anything, opens up my imagination. Think of a world where a son inherits riches, and his sister becomes a nobody. Despite that, and despite the son marrying the most beautiful woman in the world, Nefertiti (which means A Beautiful Woman is Coming), the son and his neglected sister hook up and have children, one of whom, after immense struggles, becomes the head of the family. What goes on in an household where that can occur? What conspiracies and servant-led intrigues and poisonings and sudden assassinations have to take place to make that happen? Particularly when the new head of the family only succeeds after a couple of non-family members (Horemhab and Smenkhare) were in charge after the patriarch's death for some years?

It doesn't really matter in the end. As the product of a brother/sister marriage (with almost certainly some previous incest to make it worse), Tutankhamun's immune system was shot, and he suffered from a genetic bone disorder that forced him to walk with a cane. He was unable to have children* - two stillborn fetuses found in his tomb are preliminarily identified as his daughters by his wife Ankhesenamun. His foot weakening, his leg fractured and failing to heal, his immune system half as vigorous as an outbred person's, he caught malaria (more than once, and once with malaria tropica, or Plasmodium falciparum) and then he was destined to die.

He died at nineteen after ten painful years on the throne, and was subjected to an Orwellian rewrite of history as his father had been, to erase him from the books. He's remembered now because debris from later, more important pharoahs' tombs on the slope above covered the entrance to his tomb, and so Howard Carter was able to sleuth it down three thousand years later and open it - to find it absolutely intact, the mummy, the masks, the canopic jars, his walking-sticks and even his poor, non-viable fetus daughters in little coffins, piled into unfinished rooms in hasty finery - for what deliberation can a tomb-builder afford when his king dies at nineteen? - in a hermetically sealed tomb.

* Edit to add: It may not have been his infertility alone. If I'm remembering correctly, Tutankhamun's wife Ankhesenamun was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, making her Tutankhamun's half-sister. He was the product of a brother/sister mating and his wife was his half-sister. (And before she married her half-brother, she was married to Akhenaten, her father,who married several other of his daughters.)


Casey said...

What an enjoyable lesson in Egyptology (and the drawbacks of sibling procreation).

Peromyscus said...

Thank you.

And in the interests of blowing your mind: There's a fair possibility that Nefertiti succeeded her husband as king. Although she was apparently female, and bore at least three daughters, she was depticted smiting various enemies.

She fell out of favor in the 13th year of her husband's reign, but after his death, her names begin to appear again associated with the name of the new ruler, King Smenkhare, who took the throne briefly before Tutankhamun ascended. The Wikipedia page is a bit abstruse and dry(, but you might get a kick out of the fact that most of the Amarna period dating is based on wine jar labels. See, for more than three thousand years, wine jars have had the year written on the label. Since the count of years in Egypt restarted with each pharoah, they were labeled "year ten of king so and so" and the like. Very valuable to historians.

I'll drink to that.


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