In the mid 14th century BC the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun died young. Recent research published in the Journal of American Medical Association claims to shed light on the cause of his death.
But are we really any closer to knowing how the 19 year old king was killed?
The researchers claim that Tutankhamun most likely died as a result of a rare bone disorder and a bout of malaria. Following this publication newspapers and websites almost universally regurgitated the claim and now it appears that malaria is the commonly accepted cause of Tutankhamun’s death. Importantly though, malaria exposure was determined by sequencing Tutankhamun’s genome. Buried in his DNA were the genes AMA1, STEVOR and MSP1, not human genes but genes from the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of cerebral malarial.
So yes Tutankhamun was exposed to malaria. However, finding malarial parasite genes does not in any way indicate that he died as a consequence of malaria infection. In fact it is not surprising that Tutankhamun, and some of the other mummies tested, were infected with malaria parasites. Modern humans living in malaria endemic areas, such as Papua New Guinea, also test positive to malaria infection even when they are asymptomatic.
Plasmodium falciparum malaria, which kills about three million people every year, is in many ways a disease of young children who have not had prior exposure to the parasite and therefore have not developed sufficient immunity. Older children and adults living in malaria endemic communities are constantly re-exposed to the parasite and thereby maintain immunity throughout their life.
When I recently visited Madang on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, a malaria endemic area, locals described to me that episodes of malaria infection are no worse than the common cold. Most cases are not fatal and not even symptomatic due to continual exposure to parasite infected mosquitoes.
A definitive post mortem diagnosis of death by malaria infection requires biopsy of organs such as brain, spleen or liver in order to assess the severity of infection. But all of these organs are routinely removed by ancient Egyptian embalmers prior to mummification. Thereby the claims that Tutankhamun died partly as a consequence of malaria infection are unfounded and probably incorrect.
Most experts still believe that Tutankhamun died from a bone fracture. The fact that Tutankhamun was infected by malaria parasites at some point in his short life is not surprising but it does provide us with another small piece of information that can be used to reconstruct his life and the world that he lived in, and for this I applaud these findings. There is no fault in this vital and interesting research, only in the conclusions.
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