How Did King Tutankhamun Die?

The funerary mask of Tutankhamun.
  JoseIgnacioSoto / Getty Images

Since archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, mysteries have surrounded the final resting place of the boy-king – and exactly how he got there at an early age. What put Tut in that tomb? Did his friends and family get away with murder? Scholars have cast about any number of theories, but his ultimate cause of death remains uncertain. We investigate the pharaoh’s death and dig deep to uncover the mysteries of his final days.

Getting Away With Murder

Forensic science experts worked their magic on Tut’s mummy and, lo and behold, they came to the conclusion that he was murdered. There was a bone sliver in his brain cavity and a possible blood clot on his skull that may have resulted from a bad blow to the head. Problems with the bones above his eye sockets were similar to those that occur when someone’s shoved from behind and his head hits the ground. He even suffered from Klippel-Feil syndrome, a disorder which would have left his body very fragile and susceptible to interference.

Who would have had the motive to kill the young king? Perhaps his elderly adviser, Ay, who became king after Tut. Or Horemheb, the vigorous general who was champing at the bit to restore Egypt’s declining military presence abroad and wound up being pharaoh after Ay.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, later re-evaluations of evidence suggest that Tut wasn’t killed. The injuries some thought were inflicted by enemies may have been the product of poorly conducted early autopsies, scientists argued in an article called “The Skull and Cervical Spine Radiographs of Tutankhamen: A Critical Appraisal” in the American Journal of Neuroradiology. What about the suspicious bone sliver? Its displacement “could fit in well with known theories of the practice of mummification," the article's authors state.

A Terrible Illness

What about natural illness? Tut was a product of significant inbreeding amongst members of the Egyptian royal family, the son of Akhenaten (né Amenhotep IV) and his full sister. Egyptologists have theorized that members of his family had serious genetic disorders resulting from inbreeding. His father, Akhenaten, showed himself as feminized, long-fingered and -faced, full-breasted, and round-bellied, which led some people to believe he suffered from a number of different disorders. This could’ve been an artistic choice, however, but there were already hints of genetic issues in the family.

Members of this dynasty long married their siblings. Tut was a product of generations of incest, which may have caused a bone disorder that weakened the young boy-king. He would have been frail with a club foot, walking with a cane. He was hardly the robust warrior he depicted himself to be on his tomb walls, but that type of idealization was typical of funerary art. So an already weakened Tut would be susceptible to any contagious diseases floating around. Further examination of Tut’s mummy showed evidence of plasmodium falciparum, a parasite that can cause malaria. With a frail constitution, Tut would’ve been the disease’s number one conquest that season.

Chariot Crash

At one point, the king appears to have fractured his leg, a wound that never healed properly, perhaps sustained during a chariot ride gone wrong and malaria on top of that. Every king loved riding dirty in chariots, especially when going out on hunts with their friends. One side of his body was found to be caved in, irreparably damaging his ribs and pelvis.

Archaeologists have suggested that Tut was in a really bad chariot crash, and his body never recovered (perhaps exacerbated by his poor constitution). Others have stated Tut wouldn’t have been able to ride in a chariot because of his foot affliction.

So what killed King Tut? His bad health, thanks to generations of inbreeding, probably didn’t help, but any of the above issues could’ve caused the killing blow. We may never know what happened to the famous boy-king, and the mystery of his demise will remain just that - a mystery.

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Silver, Carly. "How Did King Tutankhamun Die?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Silver, Carly. (2020, August 27). How Did King Tutankhamun Die? Retrieved from Silver, Carly. "How Did King Tutankhamun Die?" ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).

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