King Tut Tomb Fetuses May Reveal Pharaoh's Mother

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
August 7, 2008
Two mummified fetuses found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun will undergo DNA testing to determine their relation to the famous pharaoh, Egyptian officials announced today.

The fetuses may also solve a longtime puzzle: the identity of King Tut's mother.

The young Tut, who reigned from 1336 to 1337 B.C., is controversially thought to be the son of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Kiya. But some archaeologists believe he could be the son of Akhenaten's other wife, the powerful Queen Nefertiti.

"The fetuses will help us determine whether [King Tut's wife and daughter of Nefertiti] Ankhesenamun was a half sister or a full sister," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"If the fetus DNA matches King Tut's DNA and Ankhesenamun['s DNA], then they shared the same mother."

The testing will also reveal whether the fetuses are offspring of Ankhesenamun and Tut.

Scientists caution, however, that they will probably not establish a direct link between the fetuses and Tut because such genetic matches are extremely difficult to prove.

Additionally, mummies of fetuses found in a tomb are not necessarily the children of the buried pharaoh.

"I personally feel they are not the sons of Tutankhamun," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer in Residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"I think they are children put in the tomb to be reborn in the afterlife."

DNA Sleuthing

DNA tests are more accurate when comparing a mother to a child, because women pass on several traces of DNA—called mitochondrial DNA—to their offspring.

Nuclear DNA—passed on by fathers and mothers—has only a single trace of DNA.

(Get a DNA overview.)

Ancient nuclear DNA has never been connected between two mummies, experts say.

But if scientists come up empty comparing the fetuses to Tut, they could still examine the mitochondrial DNA of several unidentified female mummies.

Earlier this year archaeologists moved two mummies found in the pose of royal women from the Valley of the Kings for further study.

Archaeologists also are studying two nonroyal female mummies in addition to known mummies such as Tut and his great grandmother Tuya.

Several 18th-dynasty (1550 to 1069 B.C.) queens including Tiye, Nefertiti, and Kiya have not been identified.

Long Wait

It will be many months or even years before the DNA tests are complete.

The fetuses' fragile bones and air contamination may slow the process, experts say.

"The bones [of fetuses] are more brittle, because they weren't completely formed," said Angelique Corthals of Stony Brook University in New York.

"External contamination … is going to be a huge problem."

The fetus mummies have likely been corrupted since they were discovered in Tut's tomb in 1922. The specimens were kept in a Cairo hospital in the early 1930s before being moved to Cairo University, where they have resided for more than 70 years.

"We have one that is in fairly acceptable shape and one that it is bad shape," said Ahmed Sameh, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University.

Mummy IDs

Studying ancient mummy fetuses is part of a larger recent effort by Egyptian scientists and archaeologists to identify all of the mummies found in Egypt.

(Related: "Egypt's Female Pharaoh Revealed by Chipped Tooth, Experts Say" [June 27, 2007].)

These two fetuses will be studied at a new ancient-DNA lab opening at Cairo University to supplement research at a similar lab at the Egyptian Museum.

"You have to make two [DNA laboratories] for comparison to have accurate information," Hawass said. "You cannot depend on the result of one lab."

The new lab is expected to lend credibility to the project, which has not yet published results.

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