Posted on 16-02-2010
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

Science (and DNA testing) have now answered some of the mysteries behind King Tut.  Tutankhamun (who started his reign as Tutankhaten) is a fairly obscure and unimportant Pharaoh.  But he is one of the only one whose tomb was discovered nearly intact (perhaps because of his lack of importance and possibly from the loyalty of a successor).  The opulence of his tomb catapulted him into public imagination far beyond what the accomplishments (if any) of the boy-king justified.

And yet not much is known about the boy/man himself.  He ruled during the period when the Egyptian New Kingdom under the XVIIIth dynasty was at the peak of its opulent splendor but facing religious turmoil.  He succeeded the enigmatic Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) who drew the wrath of the priestly class by transferring royal patronage from Amun to the sun god Aten (which has also drawn a lot of attention for alleged monotheism).  The relationship between the two Pharaohs (an there relationship to the even more obscure Smenkhkare who was co-regent and perhaps the brief successor of Akhenaten was not known.

Tutankhamun was assumed to be Akhenaten’s son, but his mother was not known.  Most historians doubted that his mother was the famous Nefertiti and speculated that it was a minor wife of Akhenaten called Kiya.  The damnatio memoriae that appears to have been inflicted on Akhenaten in the religious reaction following his death (when Tuthankhaten morphed into Tutankhamun) may be to blame for this.

But now DNA technology has lifted the veil.  King Tut was likely not murdered by his vizier and successor Ay, but was instead a frail product of inbreeding who suffered from a bone disorder and likely died from an infection from a broken leg aggravated by malaria.  See link.   Also see here and here.  Akhenaten has been identified as his father and Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiye as his grandparents.  His only grandparents.

Tutankhamun’s mother was Akhenaten’s full sister.  There are no records indicating that Nefertiti was related to Akhenaten which likely rules her out.  So far the identity of the mother is not known.  This also makes Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun known to be a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti his half-sister.

Royal inbreeding was very common in Egyptian history.  The royal family being considered divine a “pure” bloodline was expected to be passed down.  This occurred elsewhere (including for example with the Incas) and the Egyptians appear to have passed it along to their Persian and Greek conquerers.  While sibling marriage faded away after the rise of the Roman Empire, royal families until this century were plagued by the effects of inbreeding.

The DNA testing has also confirmed that Akhenaten was not androgynous in appearance from some medical condition as the artwork of his reign appears to suggests.  The unusual renderings of the Pharaoh and his family appear to have been made for artistic and religious reasons.

Deciphering a 3300 year old mystery was made possible by the Egyptian habit of mummifying the dead.  There seems to be a pattern of solving ancient Egyptian mysteries of late.  See previous blog post.  Maybe the trifecta of finding the tomb of Alexander the Great is round the corner.

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