Thursday, February 18, 2010

Comments re Tutankhamun publication in JAMA

For those who haven't had the chance to wade through all the different articles about the JAMA paper (see yesterday's post) Kate has provided an excellent summary of the main findings. See:
News from the Valley of the Kings (Kate Phizackerley).

Some comments have started to emerge which take issue with or question the emphasis placed on some of the findings. The National Post questions the ethics of such work, and the Associated Press wonders if the findings will undermind the fascination with all things Tutankhamun.


This article looks at the JAMA article and disputes some of its claims - and says that other claims in the paper are unsurprising. With family tree.

The team behind the work, led by Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, thinks that King Tut may have weakened and died from some combination of these conditions — especially considering that he also had a fractured leg2, an injury perhaps sustained as a result of his foot problems.

But other experts argue that finding evidence of malaria is unsurprising, given that the parasite was probably common in Egypt at the time. Moreover, in malarious regions people who survive the disease in childhood often acquire partial immunity that protects them against full-blown malaria later in life. The lack of internal organs in mummies makes a definitive diagnosis impossible. "No data are available to assess that malaria was the cause of death," says Giuseppe Novelli, head of the medical genetics lab at Tor Vergata University of Rome.

The authors also believe that the malaria finding is "the oldest genetic proof for malaria in precisely dated mummies". Experts say this is no big deal, however, as mummies thought to be from this period and earlier have already been shown to have had P. falciparum malaria3,4. Moreover, changes in the human genome that have been attributed to malaria's influence show that the disease has been around since ancient times5.
Differential diagnosis

The damage to King Tut's foot may also be open to alternative explanation, experts say. A diagnosis of necrosis cannot clearly be made from the published images, says Gino Fornaciari, director of palaeopathology at the University of Pisa in Italy, adding that it could be secondary to malaria.

Archaeology Magazine (Mark Rose)

News reports are coming out today about Tut, malaria, and his family DNA. Here's a quick take based on an early cut of the Discovery documentary and the Journal of the American Medical Association press release.

The bone degeneration in one of Tut's feet is very clear. Genetic evidence of malaria is said to have been found in Tut's mummy and three others. The researchers speculate that bone degeneration and a broken leg plus malaria might have done Tut in. Some of the versions of the story suggest that Tut was "frail," a view that runs counter to our March/April cover story, "Warrior Tut." I suspect that they are overdoing it a bit.

The positive identification of the mummy from tomb KV55 as Akhenaten--thought by many to be Tut's father--is a little puzzling as the mummy's age at death estimated osteologically and dentally is too young. The individual was perhaps just a bit older than 20, while mid-30s is what we'd expect for Akhenaten. It isn't clear to me that identification of KV55 as Smenkhkare, possibly Tut's brother, can be ruled on the DNA results. (I've emailed the project's DNA specialist about this point.)

Somewhat startlingly, the so-called "Younger Lady" mummy from KV35 is said to be Tut'mother.

Ennahar Online

Experts in Egyptology eagerly await the announcement Wednesday of the results of DNA analysis of the mummy of Tutankhamun, some hoping for a scientific and historical breakthrough, others pointing to the difficulties and limitations of the exercise. . . .

A first difficulty is the condition of DNA evidence taken from embalmed bodies by dozens of people with many products, and may be again handled during excavations and looting.

"The major problem is to have a reliable DNA for remains as old," said Michel Wuttmann, the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (IFAO) in Cairo.

Mummies past under X-rays in the past may also have damaged DNA. The mummy of Ramses II, treated with cobalt bomb to kill the fungi that gnawing, was now a highly degraded DNA.

Mr. Wuttmann hoped however that research on Tutankhamun will advance in this technique. "We are delighted to have a reliable instrument and a validated procedure for many other studies, often less dramatic," he says.

Very critical, Abdel Halim Nureddin, former head of Egyptian antiquities and professor of archeology at Cairo University, declares on his part "not able to say categorically that DNA testing can give true results on mummies over 3500 years.

"DNA tests in archeology are not sufficient. There must be other archaeological evidence that allows us to establish with certainty the genealogy of Tutankhamun," he says.

Gulf Times

Archaeologists are divided among those hoping the DNA results will lead to a scientific breakthrough and others who believe DNA testing can not be conclusive.
“We need other archaeological proof to establish with certainty the lineage of Tutankhamun,” said Cairo University professor Abdel Halim Nurreddin. “DNA testing is not enough.”

Michel Wuttmann of a Cairo-based French archaeology institute said Wednesday’s revelations could help unravel other “less spectacular” mysteries.
American archaeologist Raymond Johnson meanwhile told AFP: “We are very interested in having another tool in the study of these ancient families.”

“I think other analyses have proven that it can be very useful in showing close genetic relationship,” he added.

National Post

Raises some interesting questions, but doesn't attempt to answer them.

As sleuthing tools become more widespread, ethical questions are bound to emerge.

What is considered a decent lapse of time before scientists can carry out a "historical" inquiry on human remains?

And should great figures be entitled to the same protection of privacy as private individuals?

"All historians are guilty of enjoying reading the mail and personal materials of others," said Howard Markel of the University of Michigan in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), where the Tutankhamun probe was published.

"The penetrating wonders of 21st-century medical science... (require) pondering all the ethical implications of such inquiries to avoid opening a historical Pandora's box."

Associated Press

"This is one sick kid," Egyptologist Emily Teeter, assistant curator at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said after learning of the research. It shows that, based on DNA tests and CT scans, Tut had a genetic bone disease and malaria, which combined with a severe broken leg could have been what killed him about 3,300 years ago at age 19.

The results appear in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. They further dispel the more romantic and popular theories about what did him in, like being murdered by a sneaky palace foe.

The findings stem from the most rigorous research yet on a mummy that has fascinated the world ever since his largely intact, treasure-filled tomb was found nearly 90 years ago.

But historians say the new evidence will likely only intensify public interest in King Tutankhamun because it brings the boy ruler down to Earth.

"It makes him all the more human and all the more fascinating," said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

The more realistic picture, fleshed out by testing Tut's mummy and those of his family, has its own mystique. Beneath the golden splendor in which they lived, ancient Egypt's royals were as vulnerable as the lowliest peasant: Three other mummies besides Tut's showed repeated malaria infections.


Unable to resist the opportunity for a backward glance, Reuters have added a piece about how they reported the original discovery of Tutanhkamun's tomb.

Reuters sent Valentine Williams, brother of Chief Editor Douglas Williams, to Egypt as its special correspondent. However, there was a snag. Lord Carnarvon had reached an agreement with The Times for exclusive rights to the story. Despite this, Williams contrived not only to obtain news of the discovery of the intact sarcophagus within minutes of its happening but also to be the first to get a ‘flash’ out to the world.

The climax came on February 16, when taking a gamble that the final breakthrough into the chamber was imminent, Williams made his secret preparations.

First, he telephoned Reuters Cairo office to buy a car, and, as there was then no road, arranged for it and a driver to be sent to Luxor by rail. Under cover of night, 20 Eqyptians manhandled it to the Nile, levered it onto a small boat and hid it in the rushes on the western bank. This would be used to speed the news from the Valley of the Kings to the western bank of the river.

Next, a boat was hired to take the news across. He then arranged for a local car (a very ancient Model T Ford) to be on standby to carry the news from the eastern bank to the cable office in Luxor. As he waited near the tomb entrance, Valentine kept in his pocket two prepared telegram cables, each marked Urgent (triple rates). One read ‘Tomb empty’, the other ‘King’s sarcophagus discovered’.

1 comment:

Myra Shields said...

My oh my. No wonder our ancestors did not live very long. They say that King Tut was an inbreed. When you have children with siblings, cousins or parents you are mixing "like blood" so there is no way good genes can stamp out bad genes. This is because they are all the "same gene". So if one parent had heart disease risks and the other parent had the same it will be 100% likely that there offspring will suffer the same fact.