DNA tests may reveal whether Tutankhamun really had royal blood

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The Independent Online

Experts in Egypt and Japan are using DNA analysis on the mummy of King Tutankhamun in an attempt to solve one of ancient Egypt's great mysteries - who exactly he was.

Experts in Egypt and Japan are using DNA analysis on the mummy of King Tutankhamun in an attempt to solve one of ancient Egypt's great mysteries - who exactly he was.

Although the magnificent contents of his tomb, including his golden mask, have made him one of Egypt's most famous pharaohs, very little is known about the boy king's birth, short reign or death while still in his teens.

Egyptian antiquities officials say the 4,500 items found around his coffin when Howard Carter opened his tomb in 1922 yielded few clues. They hope that modern scientific techniques might help to end a controversy about how he came to the throne more than 3,000 years ago.

Japanese experts from Waseda University in Tokyo will do the tests next month.

This will be the first examination of the mummy in more than 30 years. It has lain undisturbed in its tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor since it was last X-rayed in 1969.

The Japanese, working with Egyptian antiquities officials and experts from the medicine and science departments of Ain Shams University, Cairo, will do similar DNA tests on the mummy of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, now in the Egyptian Museum, to try to establish Tutankhamun's parentage. Amenhotep III is the father of Akhenaton, whom Tutankh-amun is thought to have succeeded when he was nine or 10. But the exact relationship between Akhenaton, Amenhotep and Tutankhamun is still the subject of intense debate.

Gaballah Ali Gaballah, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said Akhenaton, who married Queen Nefertiti, is only ever depicted with daughters, suggesting Tutankhamun may be Akhenaton's son by another woman, or his brother.

"Since Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, there've been squabbles about his lineage," Mr Gaballah said. "We want to know once and for all if there was a blood relationship between Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun and we're hoping DNA can provide a conclusive answer. If this succeeds, it'll open up all sorts of possibilities for determining lineage in ancient Egypt."

But DNA testing on mummies is still in its infancy. Nasry Iskander, an Egyptian expert on mummies, said extensive testing of ancient human and animal remains has been only partly successful, even in mummies much better preserved than Tutankhamun's. Mr Iskander said that when Howard Carter found the mummy, it was stuck to Tutankhamun's inner coffin with resin and Carter had to burn it to get it out, leaving it in "very poor shape".

DNA analysis will be difficult, said Mr Iskander. "We'll have to try to test small bits of the surviving flesh or bone or perhaps part of one of his teeth. I'm very excited about it, but it's not certain it will work."

If the tests prove successful, Mr Iskander hopes DNA could provide the answer not just to Tutankhamun's birth, but also to his mysterious death.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," he said. "He was only 19 when he died, and everyone wants to know how he died so young and still had such a huge number of treasures with him."

Speculation about his death resurfaced recently when Dutch researchers who had studied his clothes concluded that he suffered from a disease that had left him with large fatty deposits around his hips.

The suggestion that King Tut may have had a weight problem raised eyebrows in Cairo. Gillian Vogelsang Eastwood, a researcher, said she welcomed "anything that cleared up the controversy" that has raged among Egyptologists for so long.

Permission to examine Egypt's most celebrated pharoah is a much-coveted archaeological prize. "We've been trying to persuade the Egyptian authorities to allow us to do this for a long time," said Atushi Nishikawa, who is Waseda University's representative in Egypt.

"The Egyptian authorities were worried that examining the mummy would damage it. But with archaeology now using more and more sophisticated equipment, we've been trying to convince them that it carries no risks," he added.

Most Egyptologists blame the death of Egypt's most glamorous pharaoh on a power struggle, rather than a weight problem. DNA testing could finally put an end to guesswork about Tutankhamun and provide a scientific answer, Mr Iskander said.