Did King Tutankhamen Die From Epilepsy?

A British surgeon has a new theory about the life and death of Egypt's most famous pharaoh

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Ever since King Tut’s lavish tomb was opened in 1924, when people weren’t muttering about the curse supposedly placed on it they were trying to divine what killed the young Egyptian king. Now, a British surgeon and history buff has a new theory about not only what may have caused King Tut’s death, but also led Egypt to become the world’s first monotheistic culture.

Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, thinks the malady that killed King Tut was epilepsy. Ashrafian’s theory, reported in New Science, is the result of some good old fashioned historical deduction. The surgeon noted the pharaohs’ feminized figures, as they appeared in the artistic portrayals of King Tut and his presumed relatives — Smenkhkare, believed to be Tutankhamun’s uncle or older brother, and Akhenaten, who is thought to be Tut’s father. He also took into account findings that each pharaoh had died at a slightly younger age than his predecessor. To Ashrafian, this suggested an inherited disorder. Then Ashrafian looked at the religious events that occurred under these pharaohs’ watch.  “It’s significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them,” Ashrafian told New Science. The religious experience of Tuthmosis IV is inscribed near the Great Sphinx, while Akhenaten’s religious vision encouraged him to raise the status of a minor deity called Aten into a supreme god — thus establishing the earliest recorded monotheistic religion.

(MORE: That’s a Wrap: British Man’s Body Mummified, King Tut-Style)

For Ashrafian, this historical milestone was another clue to what may have killed boy king. “People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,”  Ashrafian told the Washington Post. “It’s likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy.” According to New Science, the temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development — which could explain why the pharaohs were depicted with wide hips and larger breasts than you would expect on a man. A seizure might also be to blame for Tutankhamen’s fractured leg, says Ashrafian — evidence of which had led some to speculate that Tut died from injuries sustained after a fall from his chariot.

But the new theory does not completely lay to rest speculation about the cause of death of King Tutankhamen. “It’s a fascinating and plausible explanation,” said Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to the Washington Post. However, he notes, the theory is almost impossible to prove, given that there is no definitive genetic test for epilepsy. “Do we know that a seizure led to monotheism? It’s a nice idea, but we don’t know,” he says. “It’s a very interesting hypothesis, but it’s just that — there’s no definite proof.”

MORE: Today in History: King Tut’s Sarcophagus Uncovered

MORE: Egypt’s Human Chain: The Race to Save the Mummies

46 comments
BrickGrace
BrickGrace

Am the happiest mother so far,my daughter onces suffered from epilepsy for six years,which was affecting her schooling,i had giving her different medication but no solution,then i got the contact of a doctor from a friend,the doctor gave me hope again,he sent me the medication which i used on her,she too the medication for just a week and that was the end of her problem am sharing for any one with such problem to also contact the doctor on   Alegbe3@gmail.com or +2349027116105,

Thanks.

fred friendly
fred friendly

How come we never hear that one of these mummies died because no one knew the Heimlich Maneuver ?

MicheleandMarty Zimmerman
MicheleandMarty Zimmerman

I had childhood epilepsy.  I only had one seizure episode.  When I had my seizure I could feel myself shaking.  I could hear my mom standing over me yelling my name and trying to get me to come to.  I guess one could say it could be interpreted  as an out of body experience. I'll never forget that day - my memory is as vivid as though it were 30 years ago.  And one concern with epilepsy is the "swallowing of the tongue" - where the tongue slides to the back of your throat thus blocking air.  So does epilepsy kill??? 

Vertumnus
Vertumnus

Why not say he died of kidney failure!  Does this have any relevance at all?  Any intrinsic value?  The man is dead.  Let him rest.

Candace Carpenter
Candace Carpenter

My sister has epilepsy and basically nothing in this article sounds like anything that has to do with it. Also, epilepsy doesn't kill you.

Doctor adam
Doctor adam

who gives a rat ass what he died of?

NotSoSilentObserver
NotSoSilentObserver

Epilepsy doesn't kill, it is not terminal, nor is it a disease, it is a disorder... A seizure in an unsafe environment might lead to death, but seizures by themselves are not deadly.  I have been living with a seizure disorder my whole life and my doctor has assured me of this many many times.

anchorite
anchorite

Because people never fall from anything else but chariots or for any other reason except epilepsy.  This is what we call a wild @$$ guess in archaeology.

Cane Pazzo
Cane Pazzo

Epilepsy is as good a cause as any other given the incestuous nature of Egyptian royalty during this period in history.

Mark Scott
Mark Scott

Steve Martin's gonna have to do a rewrite of his song to "King Tit".

Jim McNally
Jim McNally

Any article that expresses faith in a new theory should be required to discuss prior theories it endorsed as well.  A credible pathologist does not come up with 3 or 4 distinct theories as to cause of death (here, remember the assassination by poisoning theory, followed by broken leg, followed by malaria?).  A publicist might, though.

stikechipper
stikechipper

I'm not saying it was aliens..... but it was aliens.

stikechipper
stikechipper

I'm not saying it was aliens..... but it was aliens.

Jeremy
Jeremy

This is a NEW theory?  I'm...pretty sure I heard this exact one about 7 years ago when I was taking Archaeology 317 in college.

pSychotic
pSychotic

I hope they figure this out, this is incredibly important.

Emaggs
Emaggs

As someone with a type of epilepsy (not frontal lobe though) falls are common, and the aura, if I had no scientific or medical explanation, could be seen as a " vision", especially as it effects all senses, smell, auditory, and yes, sight. It's definitely an interesting theory.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

The Bible documents the first monotheism, that attributed to Abraham who lived circa 2100 BCE, and a monotheism which was later codified as the Law under Moses at Sinai circa 1441 BCE. Traditional scholars (and even many modern biblical scholars) discount the biblical record, but do so failing to realize that the chronological details in the Bible are far more dependable than anything in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, with many cross checks for accuracy. Modern scholars make two errors: They don't know how to interpret the chronological details in the Bible correctly, and they have also tried to force the biblical chronology to fit into an incorrect Assyrian chronology based on misidentification of the Bur-Sagale eclipse, which modern scholarship says happened in 763 BCE instead of the correct 791 BCE. When the correct dates are used for the Hebrew, Assyrian, and Egyptian chronologies, everything synchronizes nicely, and it shows that the monotheism in the Hebrew Bible far predates the Egyptian monotheism of Akhenaten, which was probably a corruption based on elements of the earlier theology practiced by the Hebrews while they were in Egypt.