What Really Killed King Tut? New Evidence Sparks Debate

The mysterious death of King Tutankhamun is being newly debated by scientists.

King Tut, one of the most famous of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, died at age 19 in about 1324 B.C., but the forensic evidence gathered from his mummy has led researchers to several different conclusions about exactly what killed him.

In February, Egyptian researchers reported they had analyzed the DNA of Tut's mummy and concluded that he died from malaria. The researchers found genes that are specific to a parasite that causes malaria in Tut's DNA. The team, led by Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, Egypt, theorized that the malaria infection proved deadly for the young Egyptian King because he also suffered from a condition in which poor blood flow to the bones leads to the weakening or destruction of areas within the bones.

Tut had sustained a sudden leg fracture, possibly from a fall, which might have resulted in the life-threatening condition that killed him when the malaria infection occurred, according to the findings, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

But other experts now argue against these findings.

Tut was too old to die from malaria – most adults have developed immunity to it – and his bones show that he had lesions on his toes that are seen in sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that occurs in 9 to 22 percent of the inhabitants of Egyptian oases, according to German researchers Christian Meyer and Christian Timmann, writing in this week's issue JAMA.

Sickle cell disease (SCD), a genetic disorder in which red blood cells become dangerously misshapen, may have been the real cause of King Tut's death, said the German researchers.

"In endemic areas, malaria is a childhood disease," said Christian Timmann, professor of molecular medicine at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) in Hamburg, Germany.

"Severe disease and death occur in children. Adults will have developed a semi-immunity and are very unlikely to suffer from severe disease," Timmann told Life's Little Mysteries.

According to the German researchers, the Egyptian researchers could have tested Tut's DNA for the genetic blood disorder.

"To confirm sickle cell disease or the genetic trait would take just 60 minutes and is easy - we wonder why the authors haven't done that so far," said Christian Meyer, also a professor of molecular medicine at BNITM.

Timmann and Meyer said that if Tut had sickle cell disease, it would explain the condition of his weakened bones and how he could have died from complications brought on by the leg fracture. Because sickle cell disease causes red blood cells to be shaped like half-moons rather than their normal round shape, the red blood cells can clump together and block capillaries, restricting blood flow and clogging vessels, all of which can be life-threatening.

"Furthermore, if Tutankhamun had possessed the sickle cell gene, he would not die from malaria, as these individuals are protected from severe courses of malaria," Meyer said. The BNITM researchers will soon publish their arguments in favor of further analysis of the DNA samples taken from Tut to determine whether he had sickle cell disease.

But other researchers disagree with Timmann and Meyer's conclusions.

"There is no radiological evidence for 'weak bones' in Tutankhamen, his bones were very sound.There is absolutely no evidence from the x-rays suggesting sickle cell or any haemoglobinopathies [genetic blood disorders]," said Robert Connolly, senior lecturer in physical anthropology at the University of Liverpool, who has studied Tut's mummy and previously worked with the Egyptian researchers who published the malaria findings.

Connolly has maintained that Tut died after a fall from his chariot, pointing to evidence that his chest cavity was caved in and he had broken ribs.

Tut was part of the 18th dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom, which lasted from about 1550 to 1295 B.C.

Even though the boy king died in the ninth year of his reign at age 19, he is believed to have conceived twins with his wife, Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Nefertiti. Two tiny mummified fetuses were found in Tut's tomb in 1922, and were declared to be the Tut's daughters by Connolly when he analyzed the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh in 2008.

 This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.