Even ancient history does not stand still. Many of history's secrets lie locked inside the human genome. DNA studies have revealed patterns of early human migration around the world. They have shown that all of us probably descended some 60,000 years ago from a group of ancestors in what is now Ethiopia. In 1998, genetic tests on the descendants of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, and Sally Hemings, a slave in his household, showed (alongside other evidence) that he is likely to have fathered at least one of her children. Now, and rather more dramatically, a battery of tests on 11 Egyptian mummies, including analysis of DNA samples and CT scans, has thrown up a fascinating body of evidence about the life and paternity of Ancient Egypt's best-known king — Tutankhamen (1351-1334 BC). The findings may disappoint some mystery writers and others who speculated about the boy Pharaoh's medical condition and end. The groundbreaking study, led by Zahi Hawass of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, shows that King Tut's death at the age of 19 was probably a result of malaria (complicated by a degenerative bone condition) and not murder. His death has been a subject of feverish speculation after X-rays of his skull in the late 1960s revealed a fracture (now known to be caused by the process of mummification). Various scholars, going on the basis of artefacts portraying him in an androgynous manner, speculated he could have died from a slew of rare illnesses, including Marfan syndrome.

The main objective of the study by Hawass et al — the results of which are published in the February 17, 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association — was to determine the “familial relationship of the 11 mummies,” including that of Tut, and to search for “pathological features attributable to possible murder, consanguinity, inherited disorders, and infectious diseases.” Genetic fingerprinting has established a plausible pedigree that spans five generations. The study suggests his parents were the ‘heretic' Pharaoh Akhenaten and one of his sisters, his great grandparents were Yuva and Thuya, and the two stillborn foetuses found in his tomb were likely to be his children. Tut was a relatively minor Pharaoh in ancient Egypt's history. His present fame is linked to the wonderful treasures retrieved from his tomb, which was discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Yet it was under the rule of Tut, aided by powerful advisers such as Ay, that the traditional priesthoods and gods, banished under the iconoclastic Akhenaten, were restored. What we have just learnt about King Tut and his kin is a demonstration of the awesome power of science to rediscover our past.

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