Curses aside, there are dangers in mummy work. Mummies can harbour fungi or mold spores, some of which are toxic enough that archaeologists now wear masks and gloves when unwrapping a mummy. Given the right conditions, these fungi and spores can survive for thousands of years. Mummification rituals designed to enable eternal life may have been partially successful, if off-target.
Apart from mummies, fungi and spores (oh my!), can you guess what else is preserved in the embalming process?
Scientists from the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo (wouldn’t you love to have that on your business cards?) took DNA fingerprints of King Tut and several other mummies in his tomb. They mapped out a five-generation family tree, disproving the theory that Tut’s mother was Queen Nefertiri. In fact, she was his father’s half-sister.
Archaeologists already knew that Tut was a frail lad, since his tomb contained more than a hundred walking sticks and a pharmaceutical cornucopia. The recent DNA tests, coupled with CT scans, revealed a family history of clubfoot and scoliosis. Poor wee Tut also had various foot deformities caused by poor circulation.
I’ve saved the coolest part for last. The Supreme Council of Antiquities team also found the DNA of a micro-organism called Plasmodium falciparum, better known as malaria. The second-coolest part is where they found it: in King Tut. His nasty malaria infection might have contributed to his death at age 19, in 1324 B.C.
Next time, try your hand at our quiz question: What was the ancient Egyptian word for “mummy”?
Hint: It’s not “mummy”.
- Katie Moisse for Sceintific American at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=king-tut-dna
- Christopher Intagliata for Scientific American at http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=king-tuts-tough-life-10-02-17