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Children's Health

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Did Malaria, Bone Disease Kill King Tut?

DNA Analysis of Mummy Yields New Clues to Pharaoh's Death

Searching for the Cause of King Tut's Death continued...

Some researchers have speculated that he died from complications from an injury, blood poisoning, or an embolism caused by a leg fracture or blow to the head. Others have said the young king may have been murdered because previous research has suggested death from a blow to the back of the head or possibly a fall from a chariot.

Between September 2007 and October 2009, royal mummies underwent detailed genetic, radiological, and anthropological studies. DNA also was extracted from the mummies.

Tutankhamun and 10 other mummies that researchers say were those of people possibly or definitely related to him were studied. In addition to King Tut and the 10 suspected relatives, five other royals who lived in an earlier period known as the early New Kingdom were examined.

Genetic study allowed the scientists to develop a five-generation pedigree of King Tut's immediate lineage, the researchers write. A number of the anonymous mummies, including one believed to be that of Tut's mother, were identified. They also identified mummies believed to be that of Tut's father, Akhenaten, and his grandmother, Tiye.

The researchers say no evidence was found of genetic conditions such as Marfan's syndrome affecting connective tissue or Kleinfelter's syndrome (having an extra X chromosome) that may have explained the androgynous appearance seen in ancient art depictions of Tutankhamun and his family.

A sudden leg fracture from a fall might have led to a life-threatening condition when a malaria infection occurred, the researchers suggest.

In an accompanying editorial, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, of the University of Michigan, writes that studying the remains of the dead raises ethical questions.

"What will the rules be for exhuming bodies to solve vexing pathological puzzles?" he asks. "Are major historical figures entitled to the same privacy rules that private citizens enjoy even after death? Most pragmatically, what is actually gained from such studies? Will they change current thinking about and prevent threatening diseases such as influenza? Will they change the understanding of the past?"

He writes that all historians are "guilty of enjoying reading the mail and personal materials of others," but that "before disturbing the dead" with 21st century technologies, questions ought to be raised "to avoid opening a historical Pandora's box."

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