All About Tut

The famous boy king has been in the news a lot lately. First it was widely reported that Tut's tomb would be permanently closed soon and an exact replica constructed. The tomb suffers from the scores of tourists who enter the tomb each day, sweating and breathing and dramatically increasing the humidity. Salt from the sweat builds up on the beautiful painted walls and has to be removed before it can corrode the walls. And a yellowish mold, probably helped out by the humidity, proliferates on the walls as well.

Mold growing on the walls of Tut's tomb

People have been calling into question the King Tut family DNA analysis since it was first released in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). Here are some excerpts from a NewScientist article:

But many geneticists complain that the team used inappropriate analysis techniques. Far from being definitive, the study is "not seen as rigorous or convincing", says Eline Lorenzen of the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Many of us in the DNA community are surprised that this has been published." 
[... ]
Zink and his colleagues used a genetic fingerprinting approach that involves testing variable regions of the genome called microsatellites, which are made up of short sequence repeats. The numbers of repeats vary between individuals, and by comparing the number of repeats across several microsatellites it is possible to work out whether or not individuals are related.

However, researchers rarely attempt this approach with ancient samples because the original DNA is likely to be degraded, and dwarfed by modern contamination. It's more common to sequence mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – cells contain around a thousand times more copies of mtDNA than of genomic DNA, improving chances of finding large intact samples.

Zink and Pusch defend their choice, saying that they took extensive precautions to guard against contamination. For instance, they extracted samples from deep inside the mummies' bones, and genotyped lab staff to rule out contamination.

But others doubt the precautions were sufficiently rigorous. Robert Connolly of the University of Liverpool, UK, who carried out blood typing of Tutankhamun's mummy in the 1960s, argues that it would be difficult to reach deep enough inside Tutankhamun's thin, fragile bones – or those of the two fetuses – to reach uncontaminated material.
However, Zink, Pusch and colleagues insist that they will soon be able to put any doubts to rest. They say they have also extracted the mtDNA that Lorenzen and others consider necessary for rigorous genetic analysis and are still working on the data. They hope to publish the results this year.

One of the most outspoken critics of the JAMA study has been Kate Phizackerly of News from the Valley of the Kings. Her critique of the study is worth reading.

My own opinion is that the KV55 mummy is indeed Akhenaten, and that Smenkhkare is actually Nefertiti ruling as co-regent under a male name and in a male role. The reason is that Nefertiti's full queenly name was Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. Right around the time Nefertiti disappears (Year 12 of Akhenaten's reign) a co-regent named Ankhkheprure Neferneferuaten appears. Interestingly, Pharaoh Neferneferuaten's throne name (Ankhkheprure) is several times spelled as Ankhetkheprure, a feminine name. In addition, only two people ever held the name Neferneferuaten. One was Nefertiti; the other was one of her six daughters. It is extremely unlikely that her daughter, who was not the family's oldest child, would have been made co-regent. After a while, Ankh(et)kheprure Neferneferuaten is replaced with Ankhkheprure Smenkhkare. The fact that these two co-regents share the same throne name suggests they are the same person, namely Nefertiti.

The age and therefore the identification of the KV55 skeleton is a somewhat separate issue, and one I'd love to explore in later posts.

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