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

45 comments
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??? 

Ramona Jackson
Ramona Jackson

 'Florence Delorez Griffith-Joyner (December 21, 1959 – September 21, 1998), also known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field

athlete. She is considered the "fastest woman of all time" based on the

fact that the world records she set in 1988 for both the 100 metres and 200 metres still stand and have never been seriously challenged. She died in her sleep as the result of an epileptic seizure in 1998 at the age of 38.'

It does sometimes.  RIP, Flo-Jo. 

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.

RMGW
RMGW

I do not believe that this is the reason for Tuts death, speculations that he had malaria and other things like an infected broken leg after falling from a chariot, that they can confirm are far more likely to be the cause. Also, the "feminized" features are only in the art and are just the art style, they have done facial reconstructions and he (and his fathers remains) are not as "feminized" as the art depicts. They just look like regular people. So if Tut and his father (Amenhotep 4) Akhenaten (KV55) , and grandfather (KV43) had temporal lobe epilepsy there is no way to tell from the remains since the brain was removed and discarded at mummification, so it will always be speculation, like any other theory that has popped up over the years. The fact that the doctor is speculating about who Tuts family might be indicates he has not done much research lately. While tests are never 100% accurate, they have been doing DNA testing and have discovered that Tut is (within testing error figures) through mitachondrial tests from numerous 18th dynasty mummies of both genders that Akhenaten was his indeed his father and his mother was his fathers sister (remains found in a KV35 I think), and I have not heard that they have difinitively identified who (or if he was just a "name change" for someone else) Smenkhare even was. Also, who is to say that the "vision" that Tutmosis 4 had actually happened. Humans in general are good at storytelling and some better than others. Since there is no medical evidence (and likely never will be) that it was actually genuine and not just a story, that also can only remain speculation. Also, if the "vision" story worked with dad/grandpa, who is to say that the successors didn't see if they could keep that momentum going. Tutmosis 4 was also not the first pharoah to have a story that justified being on the throne. Another 18th dynasty example of this was Hatchepsut, the wife/sister of Tutmosis 2. As for the each one dying younger than the last, that (in my opinion) does not hold water either, I have my own genealogy as a hobby and that has happened often in my tree, (as well as several in a row dying older than the last) and it has also happened elsewhere in the lists of pharoahs whether they were directly or closely related to thier predecessor or not. In regards to the monotheism bit, if Akhenaten was the only contact between everyone else and the only god, (regardless of whether his intentions were honorable or not) that would certainly determine where the power and alm$ were heading. So making sure there was only one "road" so to speak for the cash and power is not strange, even today, religion aside. The only thing he said in this article that is true is that sometimes epilepsy can be affected by hormones and/or inherited, but if either (or even the epilepsy speculation) applied in this case, we will probably never know.

Ms. Carpenter and Mr. Hutchins. I am an epileptic. The reason they say that epilepsy cannot kill you is because "TECHNICALLY" you can die so many ways(drowning, aspyxiation, head truama etc) regardless of whether you have had a seizure or not, so seizure is rarely listed as the reason, since "TECHNICALLY" the seizure itself did not kill you, it was just a factor. There is also SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy) that way, they just find you dead, and no obvious other reason is found. Status Epilepticus can also kill you, that is a seizure that they are unable to stop. My neurologist has never told me that I cannot die of epilepsy. The idea of dying from it does not consume my life, but I do keep myself aware and do not climb ladders or use the chain saw (for example) alone.

Ramona Jackson
Ramona Jackson

'Florence Delorez Griffith-Joyner (December 21, 1959 – September 21, 1998), also known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field

athlete. She is considered the "fastest woman of all time" based on the

fact that the world records she set in 1988 for both the 100 metres and 200 metres still stand and have never been seriously challenged. She died in her sleep as the result of an epileptic seizure in 1998 at the age of 38.'

Flo-Jo begs to differ with you, Ms Carpenter, and Mr Hutchins. Epilepsy can sometimes be fatal.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 Hey, don't lump me in with the deniers.  I pointed out a scenario in which it might, and nowhere did I assert that it was the only possible one.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 To be fair, it might if you were operating a chariot.

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.

Matt Levine
Matt Levine

You obviously don't know what epilepsy is if you don't think it can kill you.  There are certain types of epilepsy that can cause a "sudden death".  I have absence but I know a lot about this stuff, so if you don't know what you are talking about, do you research first buddy.  I do charity events with people that have had children and relatives that have died because of seizures.  You don't know obviously.  Deb6412 is completely correct and you are utterly wrong.

Emaggs
Emaggs

 You are ill-advised, and I recommend maybe finding a new doctor. It's called SUDEP, (http://www.epilepsyfoundation...., and this is a whole separate issue from simply injuring yourself in a fatal manner (ie- falling and actually causing enough injury to die- like a sharp corner to the head, or drowning in a bath tub). Also, each seizure, if you have large ones, cause brain damage, until they take away bodily functions, like breathing. My nephew died this way. I've lost some of my speech and have aphasia.

Maybe you are just lucky, and you don't have large enough seizures to do damage- but if  you stop breathing long enough, you die.

The more you know!

Deb6412
Deb6412

I have been living with epilepsy my whole life and I know seizures can kill when they effect parts of the brain controlling blood pressure, breathing, etc. Almost happeed to me 17 years ago in an emergency room. Sudden death by epilepsy is more common in persons who have nocturnal and generalized seizures. Status Epileptus can certainly kill with0ut immediate medical treatment in all forms except for maybe simple partial and absence seizures.

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.

NotSoSilentObserver
NotSoSilentObserver

Epilepsy causes incestuous behavior????  Wow, then why am I not in relationships with my siblings..... MORON!

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 I suspect the thought was the other way around - that, if that dynasty did have a tendency toward epilepsy, and if it was genetic in origin, inbreeding would've made it worse.  Like the haemophilia that afflicted so many 19th- and 20th-century European royals.

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.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

A tiger got him.

(Now we'll see who else watched Almost Live! back in the day... )

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.

Eileen Murray
Eileen Murray

 The link between epilepsy + hormones cited is important.  That's why w/ many girls, in particular, seizures are onset at puberty.  Or, as in my case, at menopause, when hormonal activity fluctuates wildly (and insomnia takes its toll) that's when my epileptic seizures began.   I can relate to the 'visions' thing, (which I did not welcome, they can be disturbing; emotionally + physically draining); Joan of Arc was epileptic (as were many other 'visionary' artists, writers eg Van Gogh, Beethoven, Doestoevsky, etc. there are many sites about this...  )   Fascinating stuff

Fast track
Fast track

Interesting...ill go ahead and disagree with you. You know whats interesting sending people in to deep parts of jungles to find new species of life or to discover rain forests. Finding out how someone died over 500years ago is in no way interesting at all 

Emaggs
Emaggs

 to each their own buddy. Obviously, there are people who find this interesting.

CriticalThinking77
CriticalThinking77

 You sound like a fun person.  Calm dawn on the snark brother.

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.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 The problem there is that the Bible documents nothing reliably.  It's been so distorted by all the translations, retranslations, mistranslations, and quiet agenda-serving rewrites over the millennia that it has almost zero value as a historical document.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

This simply is not true. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Masoretic text of the Bible (on which such translations as the King James Version and the Jewish Publication Society 1917 edition are based) is virtually unchanged for the past 2000 years. In addition, the chronological details in the Bible line up precisely with recorded history from, at a minimum, 1002 BCE through 1967 CE. There is no other document from antiquity that has as accuarate a transmission record as the Bible.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

It's a pretty simple error to find, Dan: Time doesn't work that way.

Einstein does not agree with you. Plus, you are making an assumption that space-time transcends this universe. Keep in mind that in the terminology of the Bible, what is called "heaven" is a state of being that is not the same as space-time, but that it is possible to move between the two. Better go back to the drawing board.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 It's a pretty simple error to find, Dan: Time doesn't work that way.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

To Ben Hutchins,

Read my book, Lifting the Veil on the Book of Daniel, available on my website for free. It shows that the liberation of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967 was foretold in the Bible more than 2000 years before it happened. If you can find error, feel free to tell the world about it.

By the way, I don't blame you for being skeptical of someone claiming that the Bible predicted something 2000+ years in advance of it happening in history. I come from a science-technology-natural sciences background and find most of what I hear about Bible prophecy in media (and even in church) to be outlandish, often even bizarre beyond belief. However, the Bible is an intelligent book that contains remarkable things when one understands how to read it without getting tangled up in the religionism. If one were to read a calculus textbook without knowing mathematical symbols and terminology, it would not make much sense, would it? You first have to learn the principle of addition, then you can learn that 2+2=4 and so on. The same principle of cumulative understanding applies to reading the Bible.

Ben Hutchins
Ben Hutchins

 Just FYI, you kind of irretrievably confirm that you're talking out of your hat when you assert that a document (actually an amalgamation of originally unrelated documents, but that's another story) from thousands of years ago has anything whatever to say about things that happened in 1967.

Chris Mankey
Chris Mankey

"The Bible documents the first monotheism, that attributed to Abraham who lived circa 2100 BCE,"

The earliest copies of the bible date from about 250 bc . The monotheism of Akhenaten is well established to have predated this by about 1000 years. 

"count 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

Nonsense. there is no evidence of this. 

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Read my book, Sacred Chronology of the Hebrew Kings, available on my website for free. It shows that the Bible chronology is precise. If you can find error, feel free to tell the world about it.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

To Chris Mankey,

The Hebrew chronology, when synchronized with that of Egypt, shows that Moses was found by Hatshepsut, daughter of Thutmoses I,  and that the pharaoh of the Exodus was Amenhotep II, who was the son (but not the firstborn son) of Thutmoses III. He was succeeded by Thutmoses IV, who was not the firstborn of Amenhotep II.

Chris Mankey
Chris Mankey

"

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."

There's not a shred of evidence of "hebrews being in egypt " either. No mention or trace of them has been found. The names of the alleged pharaohs of the oppression  and the exodus are unknown and unnamed. . No record of the plagues and massive exodus of slaves has been found even though this even would have collapsed Egyptian   society at a time when Egypt was stable and prosperous. There is a 13  century bce stele that mentions israel, but only as a minor tribe that was chased into Canaan . So while it's possible that the story has a grain of truth, it's more likely that it's a wild embellishment of later writers.  

paris2venice
paris2venice

Since you think the Bible is so accurate and everything else is wrong, perhaps you can explain these:

-- Murder condoned:2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh daythere shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord:whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.(Exodus 35:2 (King James Version))http://www.biblegateway.com/pa...  Stoning of a woman condoned:19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver,and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel:and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house,and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die:because she hath wrought folly in Israel,to play the whore in her father's house:so shalt thou put evil away from among you.(Deuteronomy 22:19-21 (King James Version))http://www.biblegateway.com/pa... Rape condoned:28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed,and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's fatherfifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.(Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (King James Version))http://www.biblegateway.com/pa...  Genocide, rape, enslavement and--  child abuse (female children given to captors as sex slaves) condoned:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones,and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him,keep alive for yourselves.(Numbers 31:17-18 (King James Version))http://www.biblegateway.com/pa...