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Grave Robbing, Curses, and Customs

BBC One will air a documentary this Sunday, Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered. Tutankhamun was an Egyptian Pharaoh, also known as King Tut, who ruled from about age nine to age eighteen and whose chief claim to fame is his victimization by grave robbers in 1922.

Tut’s tomb was discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter and George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnavon. Lord Carnavon comes down to us in history as the first victim of “the mummy’s curse,” alleged to assure the untimely death of everybody who disturbed Tut’s tomb. He died within a year of visiting the tomb of an infected mosquito bite from which he spread the infection with a razor cut back in the days before antibiotics.

King Tut’s place in history was achieved not by anything he accomplished ruling Egypt, but by the fact that his tomb was discovered after having been hit only twice by grave robbers, leaving treasures for the scientific grave robbers that inspired generations of would-be Indiana Joneses. Tut’s golden burial mask has become an iconic symbol of ancient Egypt in popular culture.

The latest “truth uncovered” from the tomb opened in 1922 is brought to us by DNA analysis. A “virtual autopsy” showed the young king had a clubfoot, feminine hips, and a serious overbite. Now, DNA has given a reason. His parents were brother and sister.

Ancient Egyptians believed incest kept bloodlines pure. By Tut’s time, about 1330 BCE, Egypt’s royal gene pool was “pure” enough to be deadly. 

The European royal gene pools did not become that dangerous until the Nineteenth Century, when the results of small numbers of royals who would not “marry beneath their station” began to manifest in porphyria and hemophilia, the latter becoming known as “the royal disease.”

American Indian cultures were as innocent of gene theory as Egyptians and Europeans, but still developed elaborate rules about who could marry whom that seem to have by and large avoided the worst results of inbreeding. Those rules live on today in many tribal traditions.