King Tut's DNA Reveals a More Manly Pharaoh

A study being published this afternoon trumpets an analysis supposedly revealing how the boy pharaoh, King Tutankhamen, died, but for my money the study’s conclusion about how he looked is more intriguing.

Both results emerge from what the researchers call “molecular Egyptology,” in this case an analysis of DNA extracted from the bones of 11 royal mummies of the New Kingdom. The scientists took two to four DNA samples from each mummy, including Tut, who died at age 19 in about 1324 B.C., the 10th year of his reign. Comparing the genetic fingerprints allowed them to identify one previously unknown mummy as Queen Tiye, mother of the pharaoh Akhenaten and grandmother of Tutankhamen, another as Akhenaten (Tut’s father) himself, and a third as Tutankhamen’s mother, the researchers are reporting in tomorrow’s issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The DNA analysis also turned up genes specific to Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite, in Tut and three other mummies. The scientists, led by the colorful and controversial Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, infer that Tut suffered from avascular bone necrosis, a condition in which poor blood supply weakens or destroys an area of bone, plus malaria—a fatal combination. Tut’s tomb contained canes and what the scientists call “an afterlife pharmacy,” supporting the idea that he suffered from a condition that hobbled him.

Hawass has made headlines before for his theories of how Tut died, including (in 2006) a thigh fracture that became fatally infected, so the cause-of-death part of this research gives me a sense of déjà vu. (If you want more on this front, however, the Discovery Channel will air King Tut Unwrapped this coming Sunday, Feb. 21, and Monday, Feb. 22. I haven’t seen it, but be forewarned that some of Hawass’s previous TV productions have been more showmanship than scholarship.)

More interesting are the conclusions about the mummies’ appearance in life. Depictions of Tut and other royalty from this period show them as somewhat feminized, or at least androgynous. That led to speculation that the royal family tree was riddled with a hormonal disease that caused gynecomastia (excessive breast development in men), or Marfan syndrome, which causes patients to be tall and thin, with slender, graceful, tapering fingers—like several of the royals. But CT scans showed no signs of either. (Further evidence against a feminizing disorder—and here let me simply quote the paper— is that “the penis of Tutankhamen, which is no longer attached to the body, is well developed.”)

The feminized depictions are therefore likely to be what the researchers call “a royally decreed style most probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten. It is unlikely that either Tutankhamen or Akhenaten actually displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique.” In other words, the faces and forms so familiar to museumgoers and amateur Egyptologists may be no more than artistic license.

King Tut wasn't the only pharaoh with a penis that wouldn't stay put. Visit our polygyny gallery to learn which Egyptian leader was a staunch supporter—and practitioner—of plural marriage.