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King Tut: The science behind the discovery

The ground-breaking DNA study not only proved that King Tut wasn't murdered. It marks a new chapter in the application of modern science to ancient history.

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In this Nov. 4, 2007 photo, Egypt's antiquities chief Dr. Zahi Hawass, center, supervises the removal of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. A DNA study of the 3,300-year-old pharaoh found that Tutankhamun, the offspring of a brother and sister, suffered from a cleft palate and club foot, and died from complications from a broken leg and malaria.

Ben CurtisAP/File

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Recent discoveries about King Tutankhamun’s death may tell us even more about modern science than about the boy king himself.

What’s fascinating about the recent discoveries regarding King Tutankhamun isn’t simply that the pharaoh had malaria, but that researchers could determine the exact conditions of the life and death of a 3,300-year-old relic using modern science.

The two-year investigation into Tut’s death, which is the first DNA study ever conducted on an ancient Egyptian mummy, determined that the famed pharaoh had a cleft palate and club foot, and died from complications from a broken leg and malaria. It also revealed that Tut’s parents were brother and sister.

Besides revealing the conditions of Tut’s health and ancestry, the study marks a new chapter in the application of modern science to ancient history, says Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“This is rather unprecedented,” says Dr. Markel, who was not involved in the study. “It’s a perfect combination of great science, great international cooperation, and well-preserved bodies.... The fact that you had all these ducks in a row is fascinating.”

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