Study Presents Evidence of Extensive Inbreeding among Ancient Egyptian Royalty
A 2015 study revealed little variation in body height among Egyptian Pharaohs compared to the general population, signaling the presence of extensive inbreeding among the ancient Egyptian royalty.
Discovery News reported on a study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, conducted by Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, and colleagues, which involved the study of 259 Egyptian mummies, both royals and regular citizens. Since there are ethical rules regarding the destruction of tissue, which is necessary for genetic testing, the research team used body height, a highly hereditable characteristic, to look for evidence of incest.
"It is actually one of the largest collections of body height of ancient Egyptians and spans all major periods of their history," Rühli told Discovery News.
The research team found that there was less variation in height between the Pharaohs compared to the regular male citizens. “This is one indicator of inbreeding,” Rühli said
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The study also involved the development of a scoring system with which to evaluate the level of inbreeding within a particular family line. The results pointed to particularly high incest levels in the rules of the 17 th and 18 th Dynasty, with King Amenhotep I scoring the highest on the incest scale. Amenhotep I is believed to be the product of three generations of sibling marriages.
The coffin and mummy of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, who scored highest on the incest rating scale ( Wikimedia Commons )
In comparison, King Tutankhamun, whose parents are known to have been siblings, earned a half ranking point. While pharaohs whose grandparents rather than parents were siblings, such as Thutmosis III, scored in the lower range.
"The study shows some evidence for consanguineous (incestuous) marriages in a reliable, non-invasive way," Barry Bogin, professor of biological anthropology at Loughborough University, U.K., told Discovery News.
Marriage within family was not uncommon in ancient Egypt and was practiced among royalty as a means of perpetuating the royal lineage. The pharaohs believed they were descended from the gods and incest was seen as acceptable so as to retain the sacred bloodline. However, what they were unaware of the time was the severe consequences of family inbreeding.
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In October, 2014, an analysis of Tutankhamun’s remains suggested that his death could be attributed to genetic impairments that were caused by the fact that his parents were brother and sister. Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and Akhenaten's sister and wife. This resulted in numerous genetic conditions that the boy king suffered, including a cleft palate, a club foot, feminine hips, and a severe overbite.
Recent reconstruction of Tutankhamun, showing the genetic abnormalities he suffered as a result of family inbreeding. Credit: BBC
Tutankhamun also engaged in incest himself. At the age of 8 or 9, he was married to his half-sister Ankhesenamun , who is believed to have been formerly married to her father, Akhenaten. When Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered, they found the remains of two mummified fetuses. The infant remains are believed to have been the stillborn children of Tutankamun and Ankhesenamun, and they too, carried genetic impairments.
A gold plate found in Tutankhamun’s tomb depicting Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamen together.
Featured image: The mummified head of Egyptian pharaoh King Ahmose I, whose parents and grandparents were probably both sets of siblings. ( Wikimedia Commons )