King Tut’s gold couldn’t save him, but it saved his DNA

King Tut felled by his feet, not his foes

(Click on the link for the original story in The Globe and Mail.)

Everything the world knew about King Tut since Howard Carter discovered his tomb in 1922 was turned upside down when scientists applied today’s forensic science methods to the most famous mummy in the world.

King Tut was not a strong pharaoh riding chariots or murdered by some rival.  Instead, he was a sick and frail king, born of incest, who needed walking sticks to get around.

To quote my article in The Globe and Mail, “After more than 3,000 years, modern science is introducing us to a King Tut who was deformed, who had a painful bone disorder and 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.”

“I think it’s very interesting to see that these people had more diseases and they were hampered more impressively than some people here in the industrialized world,” said Dr. Carsten Pusch – one of the scientists involved in the discovery.  “The people who think, ‘Oh God, I have such a bad life and I would like to have more money and I would like to be a king or a queen or something like that.’  No.  These people three thousand years ago, in some sense, they were poor people”

King Tut’s immense wealth wasn’t able to buy him his health, but in a sense it did buy him everlasting life because his DNA and that of the other nobles who were studied was preserved after all these years – unlike the poorer mummies from that era.

Pusch has studied many regular non-royal mummies at the University of Tubingen in Germany before he was asked to join the Egyptian team to study King Tut, his royal relatives, and other noble mummies from the 18th dynasty.  When comparing the quality of the preserved DNA between the elite and regular mummies, he says he was surprised to see just how much more amplifiable DNA there was in these 18th dynasty elite mummies. “It was completely different,” he said.

The reason for this has everything to do with how the priests prepared these wealthy ancient Egyptians for afterlife. According to Pusch, “It’s a broader mixture of substances than the regular people.”

Whatever the substances were that those priests used to embalm King Tut and his royal relatives, they worked.  Pusch and his colleagues are now trying to figure out exactly what those materials were that they used in the royal concoctions that enabled the DNA to remain intact after all these years.

The ancient Egyptians believed if their bodies were properly preserved, their souls would live on forever.  Now that science is catching up and unraveling the mysteries inside the mummies, it’s becoming abundantly clear that what really lived on is the genetic blueprint of their beings, but only to those who paid.