A genetic investigation by French archaeologist Marc Gabolde is threatening to rewrite the history books on two of ancient Egypt's most iconic figures. For years, antiquities experts have assumed that Akhenaten and his unnamed sister were the parents of the world's most famous pharaoh, Tutankhamun. And in fact, recent DNA analyses suggested as much. But as Gabolde's new interpretation of the genetic data shows, King Tut's mom may have been none other than his father's first cousin, Nefertiti.
That Nefertiti may have been Tutankhamun's mother is not a complete shocker. She was married to Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, after all — his Great Royal Wife and chief consort. Moreover, Egyptologists know that the couple had children together (they parented six daughters). Yet, the DNA evidence suggested a different maternal parentage for Tutankhamun.
Indeed, back in 2005, an investigation by archaeologists, radiologists, and geneticists using CT scans and genetic analysis indicated that King Tut's dad was in fact Akhenaten, and that his mother was not one of his known wives. Instead, Tutankhamun's mother was his aunt — one of Akhenaten's five sisters (though the archaeologists weren't sure which one). Moreover, given King Tut's many congenital malformations, including a deformed foot, a slightly cleft palate, and mild scoliosis (a curved spine), archaeologists offered these as clues in support of the idea that he had an incestuous lineage (which is not uncommon in royal families).
A subsequent analysis by Zahi Hawass in 2010 reaffirmed the suggestion that Akhenaten was King Tut's dad — a claim that was rejected by some experts who argued that Tutankhamun's marriage to Ankhsenamun, the daughter of Akhenaten, was done to legitimize his claim to the crown.
But Marc Gabolde — the director of the archaeological expedition of Université Paul Valery-Montpellier III in the Royal Necropolis at el-Amarna — has a different idea. Speaking recently at Harvard's Science Center, Gabolde told his audience that this DNA evidence was incorrectly interpreted. The apparent genetic closeness, he argued, was on account of three successive generations of marriage between first cousins.
"The consequence of that is that the DNA of the third generation between cousins looks like the DNA between a brother and sister," he said. "I believe that Tutankhamun is the son of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were cousins."
Together, the power couple sparked a religious revolution in Egypt where they enforced the monotheistic worship of Aten, the Disc of the Sun. And now, assuming Gabolde's theory is true, they were also the parents of Tutankhamun, the Child King who assumed the throne at the age of 8 — and who is today renowned for his golden death mask.
Likewise, Nefertiti has been made famous on account of her bust, a masterpiece created by the sculptor Thutmose.
During his talk, which was titled "Unknown Aspects of Tutankhamun's Reign, Parentage, and Tomb Treasure," Gabolde offered other details of Tutankhamun's life, including his interest in Nubia (a region in southern Egypt), and inscriptions showing him hunting ostriches.
Images: National Geographic, Philip Pikart, Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer.