After more than a century of speculation within Egyptology, the lineage of King Tut and other 18th dynasty figures has been worked out.
To those for whom Ancient Egypt is just a passing interest, this may not seem so significant. Yet, in the world of Egyptology, this is akin to solving the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity. This is, quite simply, a major discovery and a significant mystery solved.
As with so many other prominent identifications in the last 10-15 years, DNA technology has helped researchers determine once and for all who the parents of King Tut were, and how he and other royal mummies from the 18th dynasty were related.
Since most of my readers are probably not familiar with the political and cultural conditions of the 18th dynasty, it is necessary to give a bit of background information in order to make sense of what will follow.
The 18th dynasty extends from roughly 1550 to 1300 B.C.E, beginning with Ahmose I and ending with Horemheb. The exact number of rulers between these two kings is not entirely clear, because of the political upheaval associated with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from about 1350 to 1334 B.C.E.
|This graph shows that Amenhotep III was the father and predecessor of Akhenaten, while his mother was a woman named Queen Tiye. The precise lineage after that has long been convoluted.|
To put it briefly, Akhenaten instituted a massive change in the religious traditions of ancient Egypt. Outlawing the worship of the traditional gods, he began what many historians consider the first truly monotheistic religion: the cult the Aten, the sun disc god. He moved the traditional capital from Thebes to the desert of middle Egypt, where he built a new city called Akhetaten (meaning “The Horizon of the Aten”). Needless to say, this was not received very well by many common Egyptians, not to mention the powerful priests of the old gods, and after Akhenaten’s death, the country was plunged into religious, social, cultural, and political upheaval.
|A statue of Akhenaten. Note the stylized facial features which characterize Akhenaten's reign.|
At least two rulers seem to have held Egypt’s throne for a four year period after Akhenaten’s death. The first was Smenkhkare, who is believed to have been Akhenaten’s brother. This Smenkhkare appears to have married Akhenaten’s oldest daughter Meritaten. Meritaten, in turn, appears to have ruled as a virtual co-regent with her husband, taking the throne name Neferneferuaten. It further appears that Smenkhkare died within just a year or so of Akhenaten, leaving Neferneferuaten to rule alone for another three years, before she too seems to have died.
The circumstances of this four-year period are extremely uncertain, and what I have provided above is simply a common historical reconstruction. It is not clear, for instance, whether Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten were two individuals or simply one person known by two names. Additionally, it is not clear whether Smenkhkare was Akhenaten’s brother or his son (most believe he was a brother of Akhenaten). Furthermore, whether two people or one person, even the gender of these figures is also not entirely clear. Finally, it is not clear exactly when Akhenaten died, and some believe that Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten (whether two people or one) ruled as co-regents with Akhenaten, falling from their position upon Akhenaten’s death.
In any case, following the demise of these previous rulers, Tutankhamun finally came to the throne of Egypt, beginning around 1330 B.C.E. He was nine years old at the time. One of his first actions as king was to abandon Akhenaten’s religion and city, return the capital to Thebes, and reinstitute the traditional pantheon of gods and religious traditions. He ruled for ten years before dying at around the age of nineteen. His tomb, of course, lay undisturbed for the next 3,000 years before it was discovered in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter.
|Inside Tut's tomb, just days after it was discovered.|
The question of who Tutankhamun was has puzzled archaeologists for a long time. His very existence was lost to history until about 1905, when an artifact was found with his name on it, discussing something he had done as king. Prior to this, no one had ever heard of him. Even after his nearly intact tomb was discovered about fifteen years later, nothing within the tomb gave any clear indication as to where he had come from or who he was related to.
Over the years, most historians have assumed he was Akhenaten’s son. However, there has been virtually no evidence to prove it. Of all the paintings and depictions discovered of Akhenaten and his family, Tutankhamun is never pictured. Instead, Akhenaten is always shown with his wife and his six daughters.
|Akhenaten with his wife, Nefertiti, and three of their daughters, worshiping the Aten.|
There is nothing in the historical record to imply that he ever had sons. Furthermore, as discussed above, his eldest daughter, Meritaten, appears to have been rather prominent, perhaps even ruling for a period of time after her father’s death. This would imply strongly that there was no viable male heir.
Others have argued that Tut was, indeed, Akhenaten’s son, but was his son by his secondary wife, a woman named Kiya, about whom very little is known. This would explain why he is not pictured in paintings of Akhenaten with his principal wife, Nefertiti.
Still others have suggested that Tut was not Akhenaten’s son but his nephew, the son of Smenkhkare, who was likely a brother to Akhenaten.
Finally, some have argued that Tut may have been Akhenaten’s brother, another son of Akhenaten’s father and predecessor, Amenhotep III. Akhenaten is known to have reigned for seventeen years, and Tut was only nine years old when he came to power, but this theory presupposes that the first eight to ten years of Akhenaten’s reign was a co-regency with his father Amenhotep, for which there is some (although not much) evidence. It is significant to note that most of the inscriptional evidence from artifacts actually supports this theory of Tut being the son of Amenhotep III, and thus the brother of Akhenaten.
Of these theories, the second and third ones have tended to be the most common – Tut was either Akhenaten’s son by his secondary wife Kiya, or was the son of Smenkhkare and thus nephew to Akhenaten. In a series on Tutankhamun I wrote a few years ago, I supported the Akhenaten/Kiya theory.
A discovery in 1910 seemed to lend credence to both of these theories. Now dubbed “KV55,” the tomb was discovered by American archaeologist Theodore Davis. Thought it was evidently originally a tomb for Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III), it had been reused in antiquity as a burial cache for items and mummies originally buried in the necropolis of Akhenaten’s capital city in the desert. In fact, Tutankhamun appears to have been behind this reburial, as his name was on the sealed door (leading the archaeologists to initially believe they had found the boy king’s tomb). Tut had, apparently, commissioned the work to remove these bodies and items from the now ruined city to the Valley of the Kings for protection. Tut did away with his predecessor’s political and religious upheavals, but apparently still found it important to protect the afterlife destinies of figures associated with the reign of Akhenaten.
Though the tomb had been robbed many times in antiquity, it still held a number of artifacts, including artifacts with the names of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye (Akhenaten’s father and mother), Akhenaten himself, as well as a few artifacts with Tutankhamun’s name.
In addition to these, there were also artifacts belonging to Kiya, Akhenaten’s secondary wife (including the jar pictured above). If Tut did indeed commission this reburial, then the presence of items belonging to Kiya might indicate a maternal affection Tut had for the woman. It is noteworthy to point out that nothing with the name of Akhenaten’s principle wife, Nefertiti, was found in the tomb.
Finally, Davis’ archaeological team discovered a mummy in the tomb, resting inside a rotting coffin with no lid. The mummy’s identity was not clear, but it was a male who appeared to have been in his early twenties at death. Because his right arm was crossed over his chest in the traditional position of male royalty, it was clear this mummy belonged to a king. Since the mummy appeared to be too young to be Akhenaten, many archaeologists assumed it must have belonged to his brother Smenkhkare. As with the Kiya theory, if this mummy belonged to Smenkhkare, it may provide evidence of paternal affection Tut had for the man. Perhaps Tut, then, was the son of Smenkhkare.
CLEARING UP THE QUESTIONS
As you can see from this brief overview, the question of Tut’s identity has haunted Egyptologists for years, and numerous theories have been put forth based on the scant evidence that has survived the millennia.
Now, with DNA testing, Egyptologists finally have definitive answers.
To begin with, DNA testing has proven that the male mummy from KV55 was, in fact, Tutankhamun’s father. It further shows that this mummy was the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, who are known to have been the parents of Akhenaten.
Fair enough, but who, exactly, does this mummy belong to? Is it Smenkhkare or Akhenaten? Both, remember, are believed to have been the sons of Amenhotep and Tiye.
To begin with, there were a number of flowery royal names on the desiccated coffin in which the mummy was found, and these are names known to have been associated with Akhenaten.
Secondly, new studies performed together with the DNA studies, have indicated that the previously accepted age of this mummy – around twenty – may be off by as many as fifteen years. Rather than being a young man of twenty, this mummy was probably a middle-aged man of roughly thirty-five (middle age, of course, by the standards of ancient Egypt!).
Finally, the mummy’s condition upon its discovery indicates very strongly that it was brutalized and vandalized in antiquity. For instance, the head was completely disconnected from the body, and it was also missing its genitalia (which led initial researchers, in the early 1900’s, to conclude that it was a female mummy). This, of course, implies that whoever desecrated the body in antiquity most probably believed it was the mummy of Akhenaten, because there would have been no discernable reason to damage the body of Smenkhkare or someone else.
As a result of this data, the researchers have concluded that the mummy in KV55 is, in fact, Akhenaten. Though some folks apparently still disagree with this conclusion, it appears that most experts agree that this mummy can be no one but the infamous heretic king.
As such, we can now say with confidence that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and the grandson of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.
But what about his mother? Was it Nefertiti, the principle wife of Akhenaten, or Queen Kiya, who, from the evidence of tomb KV55, appears to have been important to Tut?
Turns out, it’s neither.
The DNA testing has proven conclusively that Tutankhamun was the son of an incestuous relationship. His mother and father were full siblings, meaning both were the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. Since there is no evidence suggesting that either Nefertiti or Kiya were daughters of these two people, they can be ruled out as mothers for Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, neither of these women’s mummies has survived with any positive identification, so they cannot be tested for DNA.
However, other existing mummies can be tested for DNA links to Tutankhamun, and because of this, the researchers have been able to identify the mummy of Tut’s mother. It is an unidentified mummy found in 1898 in a tomb called KV35. She has routinely been referred to as the “Younger Lady” of KV35, to differentiate her from another mummy found in that tomb, called the “Elder Lady.” The DNA evidence has shown that this “Elder Lady” was, in fact, Queen Tiye – an identification that had long been suspected. Additionally, the Younger Lady has proven to be Tiye’s daughter, Akhenaten’s wife, and Tut’s mother. Her actual identity, however, is still a mystery.
Since there is no historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti or Kiya were sisters to Akhenaten, they seem to be excluded as possible identities for the Younger Lady (prior to this new study, at least one Egyptologist had argued extensively for the Younger Lady’s identification as Nefertiti). Since the mummy is known to be a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, and since several of Amenhotep’s other daughters are positively referred to as his own wives on various inscriptions, it is assumed that this Younger Lady is either Nebeta or Beketaten, two daughters of Amenhotep who were never married to their father (thus leaving them free to marry their brother, Akhenaten).
It is still possible, of course, that this mummy could belong to Nefertiti or Kiya. Perhaps one of them was, in fact, a sister to Akhenaten, but this evidence has simply not made it into the historical record. But barring such an unlikely scenario, it is far more probable that the mummy is one of the two daughters of Amenhotep referred to above.
Finally, DNA testing has shown that two stillborn female fetus mummies discovered in Tut’s tomb, are, in fact, his own children, as has long been assumed. Furthermore, tentative data suggests that an unknown mummy from a tomb called KV21 is the mother of these two fetuses. If that’s true, then it is likely that this mummy belongs to Tut’s wife, Ankhesenamun – who is known from the historical record to have been a daughter of Akhenaten and his principle wife Nefertiti.
Confused yet? It should be obvious by now that with every new discovery comes new questions. What we can assert positively at this point is that Tutankhamun is the son of the male mummy in KV55 and the younger female mummy in KV35. These two people were not only married, but were also brother and sister. They were both the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, meaning Tut is the grandson of these two 18th dynasty figures. Additionally, Queen Tiye can now be positively identified as the elder female mummy from KV55.
Much more tentative at this point are the identifications of Tut’s parents and the mother of his two stillborn children. Regarding the children, it is likely from the historical record that they are the daughters of his only known wife, Ankhesenamun. As such, it is likely that the unknown female mummy from KV21 is, in fact, Ankhesenamun. However, the data connecting this mummy to the fetuses is not yet complete. Furthermore, even if this mummy does prove to be the mother of the fetuses, this does not tell us for certain that she is Ankhesenamun. Perhaps Tut had lesser wives whose names have been lost.
Both of these problems – the mother of Tut’s children, and the identity of Tut’s parents – should be cleared up with further DNA testing on the mummy from KV21. As mentioned above, Ankhesenamun is known from the historical record to be the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. As such, if the mummy from KV21 shares father/child DNA with the male mummy from KV55 (Tut’s father), this would prove beyond any reasonable doubt that not only is she Ankhesenamun, but that the KV55 mummy is, in fact, Akhenaten (and not Smenkhkare, who would have been her uncle, not her father). Furthermore, if her maternal DNA does not match the DNA of the Younger Lady from KV35 (the mother of Tut), this would prove that this Younger Lady was not Nefertiti (although it would still leave the door open for this mummy’s identification as Kiya, if one was so inclined). Of course, if the maternal DNA matched the Younger Lady of KV35, this would prove that both Tut and his wife were the children of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, though I don’t think many experts expect this to be the case.
Putting together this speculation with the hard DNA evidence, the researchers behind this project have put together an official genealogy of Tutankhamun. His paternal grandparents are Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. His father was Akhenaten. His mother was sister to Akhenaten and daughter to Amenhotep and Tiye, probably a woman named Nebeta or Beketaten. His wife was Ankhesenamun, who was a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (making Tut her half-brother). They had two daughters who were both stillborn.
This genealogy, of course, is predicated on the assumption that the Younger Lady of KV35 is not Nefertiti or Kiya, and that the mummy of KV21 is Ankhesenamun.