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Ancient Egypt's best known pharaoh, King Tut, was worshiped as a God. But a new study finds that finds that Tutankhamen suffered a range of very human ailments that made his life painful and probably contributed to his death at age 19. The study also suggests a cause for many of Tut's medical problems: inbreeding.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.
JON HAMILTON: King Tut's reign began more than 3,000 years ago when he was nine. It lasted less than a decade. But the treasures from his tomb have made him a celebrity. And those treasures also have provoked a lot of speculation about Tut. Carsten Pusch from the University of Tubingen in Germany says that's because the statues and other depictions of Tut make him look so odd.
Professor CARSTEN PUSCH (University of Tubingen, Germany): So, this includes this funny shape of the skull, this nice belly that is always seen in the statues or these wonderful, protruding hips. And the face itself, you know, with this very full and swollen lips and this slim nose.
HAMILTON: For decades, scholars have speculated about whether Tut had syndromes or genetic defects that could have feminized his face and body or changed them in other ways. So, Pusch and a large international team used molecular genetics and advanced CT scanning to examine Tut and 10 other royal mummies. They found nothing to back up all the speculation. Tut's scull had a normal shape and there was no evidence of female characteristics. Pusch says, Tut's odd portrayal by artists was probably just the style of the time. But he says the tests did reveal enough physical problems to challenge any assumptions you might have had about the life of a boy king.
Prof. PUSCH: Everything - the sarcophagus looks splendid, you know, looks like, wow, a rich person, a person that never had problems, you know. He had everything. He had whatever girls and money and the good life and then you see, oh my god, you know, this guy was suffering more than me.
HAMILTON: Pusch says the biggest surprise was Tut's left foot. It was clubbed. And some bones in the toes were dying. He says that would explain why Tut's tomb included more than 100 canes or walking sticks.
Prof. PUSCH: You do not feel well, you have pain. Maybe you have a swollen foot because it's some sort of inflammation that can occur and you cannot walk.
HAMILTON: Tut probably couldn't even put any weight on his left foot. CT scans also confirmed that Tut had a cleft palate and a curved spine. Pusch says when you put all the evidence together it appears that the king was frail, had weak bones, inflammation and problems with his immune system.
Prof. PUSCH: I do not know any other person who has so many diseases accumulated in his body.
HAMILTON: Pusch says those problems could have come from inbreeding, which was common in the royal family. Genetic tests using DNA from mummified bones found that Tut's probable father, Akhenaten married a sister. And it appears Tut did too.
But Pusch says that although the problems related to inbreeding probably contributed to Tut's death, it's unlikely they were the immediate cause. Earlier studies had found that Tut had a badly broken right leg, which could have been a factor. And, Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, says the new study found evidence of an even bigger problem for Tut.
Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (Historian of Medicine, University of Michigan): He also had a raging case of malaria.
HAMILTON: Scientists suspect this because they found DNA in Tut's bones from a parasite responsible for the most severe form of malaria. Markel says it's likely, though not certain, that the combination of a broken bone, malaria and underlying health problems is what killed King Tut. Markel, who wrote an editorial about the new study, says the high-tech effort goes well beyond other attempts to diagnose historical figures using documents or pictures.
Dr. MARKEL: It's a sort of a polar game that doctors play all the time. But what's so remarkable about this time is that these physicians or pathologists and historians had access to the actual mummies and could put them through a whole battery of modern medical tests that we generally reserve for living patients.
HAMILTON: Markel says this approach promises to change the way scholars diagnose the ailments of historical figures. The new research appears in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.