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King Tut felled by his feet, not his foes

After more than 3,000 years, modern science is introducing us to a King Tut who was deformed, had a painful bone disorder, a fresh leg fracture and was infected with life-threatening malaria. To top it off, his parents were siblings, he may have married his sister and he likely fathered two stillborn fetuses.

Carsten Pusch, one of only two non-Egyptian scientists asked to help an Egyptian team study 16 royal mummies, including King Tutankhamen, said medical, radiological and genetic investigations revealed the relationships between the mummies and the diseases they had when they died.

"So we have opened a universe," Dr. Pusch said about this new discipline, which they'll call either Molecular Egyptology or Medical Egyptology, in which they apply modern forensic tools to historical Egyptian figures. "We brought them back to life somehow. These are people now."

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Ever since Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922, there has been endless fascination with the young pharaoh. Tutankhamen ruled for nine years during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom, until his life was cut short in 1324 B.C. at the age of 19.

Zahi Hawass from the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt led the groundbreaking study being published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Thanks to the embalming procedures applied by Egyptian priests thousands of years ago, the researchers found viable DNA to construct King Tut's pedigree. His family lineage begins with his great grandparents, Thuya and Yuya. They had a daughter who has now been identified as Queen Tiye, King Tut's grandmother and the wife of Amenhotep III.

Their children are King Tut's parents. Akhenaten is his father and a mummy that still doesn't have a name is his mother. And the two of them are siblings.

The two stillborn female fetuses found in King Tut's tomb are likely his, though the researchers couldn't obtain full DNA profiles for either. "The bones were very weak and there was not that much biomaterial," Dr. Pusch said. "But the few DNA markers we have so far indicate that these were the kids of Tutankhamen."

The DNA of the fetuses also matched another female mummy who might be their mother. The researchers weren't able to retrieve her full genetic profile, but she "shows some similarity" to King Tut's DNA, indicating they too could be full or half siblings - "not surprising considering the interfamilial marriages in this lineage," Dr. Pusch said.

Next the researchers tackled the theories about whether King Tut's father Akhenaten had a hormonal disease, which would explain why many artifacts show him with feminized features such as breasts. After close inspection, Dr. Hawass concluded Akhenaten "did not have any deformities."

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The same was not true for Tutankhamen. CT scans of his feet showed he had a slight deformity and a severe bone condition called Kohler Disease. "We have a club foot on one side and a flat foot on another side," Dr. Pusch said. "And the club foot is the foot that shows indication of bone necrosis."

Bone necrosis occurs when biological tissue dies inside a body. King Tut would have been living with this painful condition for years, which would explain the 130 walking sticks found in his tomb.

In 2005, researchers studying CT scans of King Tut announced they had found a fresh fracture in his left leg and no evidence suggesting he had been hit in the head, as was once believed, but foul play wasn't ruled out as a cause of death - until now.

The researchers tested the mummies for DNA of several infectious agents. Surprisingly, they found Plasmodium falciparum, "the causative agent of the most severe form of malaria, which is called malaria tropica," in four of the 18th dynasty New Kingdom mummies, including King Tut's.

This finding represents the oldest genetic evidence of malaria ever found in a mummy. And while it's not unheard of to live with malaria infections, this likely isn't the sole cause of King Tut's death. His broken leg could have gotten infected, which could have played a part.

"His weak bones made him a sick man," Dr. Hawass said, but the leg fracture "with the severe malaria made him die. He was not murdered."

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