King Tut may be seen as the golden boy of ancient Egypt today, but during his reign, Tutankhamun wasn't exactly a strapping sun god.
Instead, a new DNA study says, King Tut was a frail pharaoh, beset by malaria and a bone disorder—and possibly compromised by his newly discovered incestuous origins.
The report is the first DNA study ever conducted with ancient Egyptian royal mummies. It apparently solves several mysteries surrounding King Tut, including how he died and who his parents were.
"He was not a very strong pharaoh. He was not riding the chariots," said study team member Carsten Pusch, a geneticist at Germany's University of Tübingen. "Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk."
Regarding the revelation that King Tut's mother and father were brother and sister, Pusch said, "Inbreeding is not an advantage for biological or genetic fitness. Normally the health and immune system are reduced and malformations increase," he said.
Tutankhamun was a pharaoh during ancient Egypt's New Kingdom era, about 3,300 years ago. He ascended to the throne at the age of 9 but ruled for only ten years before dying at 19 around 1324 B.C
Despite his brief reign, King Tut is perhaps Egypt's best known pharaoh because of the wealth of treasures—including a solid gold death mask—found during the surprise discovery of his intact tomb in 1922.
The new study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, marks the first time the Egyptian government has allowed genetic studies to be performed using royal mummies.
"This will open to us a new era," said project leader Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.
"I'm very happy this is an Egyptian project, and I'm very proud of the work that we did."
In the new study, the mummies of King Tut and ten other royals that researchers have long suspected were his close relatives were examined. Of these ten, the identities of only three had been known for certain.
Using DNA samples taken from the mummies' bones, the scientists were able to create a five-generation family tree for the boy pharaoh.
The team looked for shared genetic sequences in the Y chromosome—a bundle of DNA passed only from father to son—to identify King Tut's male ancestors. The researchers then determined parentage for the mummies by looking for signs that a mummy's genes are a blend of a specific couple's DNA.
In this way, the team was able to determine that a mummy known until now as KV55 is the "heretic king" Akhenaten—and that he was King Tut's father. Akhenaten was best known for abolishing ancient Egypt's pantheon in favor of worshipping only one god.
Furthermore, the mummy known as KV35 was King Tut's grandfather, the pharaoh Amenhotep III, whose reign was marked by unprecedented prosperity.
Preliminary DNA evidence also indicates that two stillborn fetuses entombed with King Tut when he died were daughters whom he likely fathered with his chief queen Ankhensenamun, whose mummy may also have finally been identified.
Also, a mummy previously known as the Elder Lady is Queen Tiye, King Tut's grandmother and wife of Amenhotep III.
King Tut's mother is a mummy researchers had been calling the Younger Lady.
While the body of King Tut's mother has finally been revealed, her identity remains a mystery. DNA studies show that she was the daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye and thus was the full sister of her husband, Akhenaten.
Some Egyptologists have speculated that King Tut's mother was Akhenaten's chief wife, Queen Nefertiti—made famous by an iconic bust (Nefertiti-bust picture). But the new findings seem to challenge this idea, because historical records do not indicate that Nefertiti and Akhenaten were related.
Instead, the sister with whom Akenhaten fathered King Tut may have been a minor wife or concubine, which would not have been unusual, said Willeke Wendrich, a UCLA Egyptologist who was not involved in the study.
"Egyptian pharaohs had multiple wives, and often multiple sons who would potentially compete for the throne after the death of their father," Wendrich said.
Inbreeding would also not have been considered unusual among Egyptian royalty of the time.
The team's examination of King Tut's body also revealed previously unknown deformations in the king's left foot, caused by the necrosis, or death, of bone tissue.
"Necrosis is always bad, because it means you have dying organic matter inside your body," study team member Pusch told National Geographic News.
The affliction would have been painful and forced King Tut to walk with a cane—many of which were found in his tomb—but it would not have been life threatening.
Malaria, however, would have been a serious danger.
The scientists found DNA from the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria in the young pharaoh's body—the oldest known genetic proof of the disease.
The team found more than one strain of malaria parasite, indicating that King Tut caught multiple malarial infections during his life. The strains belong to the parasite responsible for malaria tropica, the most virulent and deadly form of the disease.
The malaria would have weakened King Tut's immune system and interfered with the healing of his foot. These factors, combined with the fracture in his left thighbone, which scientists had discovered in 2005, may have ultimately been what killed the young king, the authors write.
Until now the best guesses as to how King Tut died have included a hunting accident, a blood infection, a blow to the head, and poisoning.
UCLA's Wendrich said the new finding "lays to rest the completely baseless theories about the murder of Tutankhamun."
Another speculation apparently laid to rest by the new study is that Akhenaten had a genetic disorder that caused him to develop the feminine features seen in his statutes, including wide hips, a potbelly, and the female-like breasts associated with the condition gynecomastia.
When the team analyzed Akhenaten's body using medical scanners, no evidence of such abnormalities were found. Hawass and his team concluded that the feminized features found in the statues of Akenhaten created during his reign were done for religious and political reasons.
In ancient Egypt, Akhenaten was a god, Hawass explained. "The poems said of him, 'you are the man, and you are the woman,' so artists put the picture of a man and a woman in his body."
Egyptologist John Darnell of Yale University called the revelation that Akhenaten's appearance was not due to genetic disorders "the most important result" of the new study.
In his book Tutankhamun's Armies, Darnell proposes that Akhenaten's androgynous appearance in art was an attempt to associate himself with Aten, the original creator god in Egyptian theology, who was neither male nor female.
"Akenhaten is odd in his appearance because he belongs to the time of creation, not because he was physically different," said Darnell, who also did not participate in the DNA research.
"People will now need to consider Akenhaten as a thinker, and not just as an Egyptian Quasimodo."
The generally good condition of the DNA from the royal mummies of King Tut's family surprised many members of the team.
Indeed, its quality was better than DNA gathered from nonroyal Egyptian mummies several centuries younger, study co-author Pusch said.
The DNA of the Elder Lady, for example, "was the most beautiful DNA that I've ever seen from an ancient specimen," Pusch said.
The team suspects that the embalming method the ancient Egyptians used to preserve the royal mummies inadvertently protected DNA as well as flesh.
"The ingredients used to embalm the royals was completely different in both quantity and quality compared to the normal population in ancient times," Pusch explained.
Preserving DNA "was not the aim of the Egyptian priest of course, but the embalming method they used was lucky for us."