Guest post: Parasites in (ancient) humans – King Tut felled by malaria

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From James |

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that the famous pharaoh Tutankhamun was killed by malaria. According to their analysis, Tutankhamun was weakened by malaria and Köhler disease II. Tutankhamun ruled Egypt in 1334-1325 BC and he died at the early age of 19. His famous tomb, full of treasures, was found in 1922. Tutankhamun’s remains were studied from 2007-09 as part of the King Tutankhamun Family Project. In this study Tutankhamun was examined along with ten other royal mummies from 1410-1324 BC and five royal mummies from 1550-1479 BC.

The goal of the project was to introduce a new approach to medical and molecular Egyptology in order to determine familial relationships of eleven royal mummies and discover pathological features attributable to possible murder, inherited disorders, consanguinity, and infectious diseases. Radiological, anthropological, and genetic studies enabled the unraveling of the mystery behind Tutankhamon’s early death and his relationship with other royal mummies found in the same area. They found that Tutankhamun’s parents were siblings which is thought to have been common practice in the pharaoh family. This poor gene pool led Tutankhamun to have malformations, and he likely had severe impairments from birth.

Köhler disease II severely weakened Tutankhamun. Bone necrosis of the foot caused by Köhler forced him to use a walking stick. He had 130 of these canes in his tomb all showing signs of use and there was a fracture in his leg which was propably caused by a fall. Drawings of him sitting in various running activities such as hunting and of medicine for him to take to the afterlife further reference his medical condition. The scientists found a widening of the metatarsal-phalangeal joint space as well as secondary changes to the second and third metatarsal heads. This suggests that the Köhler disease II was still advancing when Tutankhamun died.

The investigators examined the mummies for various diseases such as tuberculosis, pandemic plague, leprosy and leishmaniasis but none were found. They did however identify DNA of Plasmodium falciparum using PCR primers that amplified small subtelomeric variable open reading frame (STEVOR), merozoite surface protein 1 (MSP1), and the apical membrane antigen 1 (AMA1) gene. The evidence of P. falciparum that was present in four of the royal mummies is the oldest proof of malaria parasites in humans. This study is also a rare piece of evidence that malaria was present in ancient Egypt. Ancient texts do mention people used mosquito nets over their beds. It is not clear however how immune Tutankhamun and other people at that time were against malaria but it’s interesting that a modern scourge might have contributed to the death of the greatest pharaoh of all time.




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