Why King Tut's DNA is fueling race wars

We've all heard stories of the miraculous tomb of King Tutankhamun, son of the rebel king Akhenaten who believed in monotheism. Trying to learn more, Egyptian scientists recently sequenced his DNA. Here's how their discoveries became racially and politically charged events.

Over at Medium, science journalist Jo Marchant has an incredible essay that will take you on a fascinating journey into the history of Tut's discovery, as well as all the crazy missteps along the path to studying his place in Egyptian history. She explores how geneticist Yehia Gad became the first scientist permitted to sequence Tut's DNA a few years ago, just as he was swept up in the protest movements of Arab Spring.

When Gad made his announcement about Tut's DNA, however, it set off an international debate.

Writes Marchant:

Gad and the team had exciting news for the waiting journalists. After amplifying DNA from every mummy they tested, they had constructed a five-generation family tree. The anonymous KV55 mummy, the team said, was actually Tutankhamun's father, the revolutionary Akhenaten, while the foetuses were most likely his daughters. But the most jaw-dropping revelation was the secret that had felled the 18th Dynasty: Tutankhamun's parents had been siblings.

Hawass ensured that the announcement was accompanied by a media blitz, including a research paper published in the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association and a four-hour special on the Discovery Channel calledKing Tut Unwrapped. He later took to the pages of National Geographic to play up the ancient soap opera. The union between Akhenaten and his sister "planted the seed of their son's early death," he wrote. "Tutankhamun's health was compromised from the moment he was conceived."

The team didn't publish any information on the mummies' racial or ethnic origins, saying that the data on the issue was incomplete. But that didn't stop others from speculating. A Swiss genealogy company named IGENEA issued a press release based on a blurry screen-grab from the Discovery documentary. It claimed that the colored peaks on the computer screen proved that Tutankhamun belonged to an ancestral line, or haplogroup, called R1b1a2, that is rare in modern Egypt but common in western Europeans.

This immediately led to assertions by neo-Nazi groups that King Tutankhamun had been "white," including YouTube videos with titles such as King Tutankhamun's Aryan DNA Results, while others angrily condemned the entire claim as a racist hoax. It played, once again, into the long-running battle over the king's racial origins. While some worried about a Jewish connection, the argument over whether the king was black or white has inflamed fanatics worldwide. Far-right groups have used blood group data to claim that the ancient Egyptians were in fact Nordic, while others have been desperate to define the pharaohs as black African. A 1970s show of Tutankhamun's treasures triggered demonstrations arguing that his African heritage was being denied, while the blockbusting 2005 tour was hit by protests in Los Angeles, when demonstrators argued that the reconstruction of the king's face built from CT scan data was not sufficiently "black."

The issues weren't just racial. Other geneticists questioned whether Gad's samples were contaminated. He'd conducted his research under tremendous time pressure, and after the uprisings of Arab Spring he had a very difficult time gaining access to the mummy again. So it was hard for him to verify his work.

What's terrific about Marchant's essay is how carefully she explores how this scientific discovery is bound up with so many cultural issues in the region, from history to ethnicity. Science doesn't take place in a vacuum. It's always saturated by social issues. And the study of Tut's remains is a perfect way to think about how this complicated relationship between science and culture really works.

You must go read the whole essay over at Medium, or check out Marchant's new book about everything that's happened to King Tut's body after it was discovered.