Tutankhamun: now we know who the mummy's mummy was
His autopsy took some time to complete – more than 3,000 years, in fact – but scientists now believe they know why the Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun died, as well as who his parents and grandmother were.
After conducting an extensive analysis of the ancient pharaoh's DNA, which they gathered from his mummified remains, the researchers concluded that a combination of malaria and bone abnormalities contributed to his premature death at the age of 19 in 1324 BC.
Further tests appear to identify other members of the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom, which ruled between 1550 and 1295 BC and was one of the most powerful royal houses of ancient Egypt. Ten other mummies found near the boy king's tomb in the Valley of the Kings were tested but only three of them can be safely identified.
The researchers believe that Tutankhamun's father was the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt for 17 years alongside his queen, Nefertiti. Tutankhamun's mother can only be named as KV35YL, the name of the tomb in which her mummified remains were found. The final identified mummy is believed to be Tiye, Akhenaten's mother and Tutankhamun's grandmother.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today, was carried out by a team of archaeologists led by Dr Zahi Hawass, one of the world's leading Egyptologists. Its aim was to determine the relationships between 11 royal mummies of the New Kingdom, looking for common features which might have been caused by inherited disorders or infectious diseases.
However, the study's authors said that previous theories that members of the 18th dynasty suffered from gynecomastia – the development of breasts in males caused by a hormonal imbalance – or Marfan sydrome, a genetic disorder leading to the development of long limbs and long, thin fingers, could now be discounted, as no signs of either disease were found during the DNA tests.
It is now known that Tutankhamun's family suffered from a bone disorder, and four of the mummies (including that of the boy king) were found to have malaria. The combination of these two conditions, the researchers argue, probably proved fatal in his case.
"These results suggest avascular bone necrosis in conjunction with the malarial infection as the most likely cause of death in Tutankhamun. Walking impairment and malarial disease sustained by Tutankhamun is supported by the discovery of canes and an afterlife pharmacy in his tomb," they concluded.
Dr Robert Connolly, a senior lecturer in physical anthropology at Liverpool University who has examined the remains of Tutankhamun, said: "DNA doesn't come thick and fast in ancient materials, and to have extracted sufficient amounts from this mummy is very lucky. This is yet another piece of the great jigsaw puzzle of the 18th dynasty."
Little was known of the young pharaoh, who ruled Egypt for just nine years, until the English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb and its priceless treasures in 1922.
In 1968, x-rays of his mummy seemed to show a swelling at the base of the skull, suggesting that he had been killed by a blow to the head and prompting some to surmise that he was assassinated.
But a more recent study, which used a CT medical scanner on his remains, revealed that Tutankhamun's leg had been badly broken just above his knee before his death, an injury which may have led to lethal blood poisoning. In 2007, further evidence suggested that he sustained the fracture while hunting on a chariot.
Dr Michael Ridley, director of the Tutankhamun Exhibition in Dorchester, said the revelations about the pharaoh's likely parentage were "fascinating" but that it was still impossible to be sure about what ended his life. "After such a long time, you can only get an idea, you can never prove it," he said. "Malaria would have been endemic to the area and it's quite possible that he may have had malaria, but not in a sufficient state to actually kill him."