New evidence from old bones

Most of what I know – or think I know – about forensic science has been gleaned from works of fiction. I started watching Quincy, M.E. in 1982 when watching TV with some friends, and it quickly became my favorite show. A year or so later, I saw Gorky Park, and was fascinated to see how an accurate model of a face could be reconstructed from only a skull. More recently, I have read a number of novels by Patricia Cornwell, especially those featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a forensic examiner like Quincy but with the advantage of all the technological advances that have taken place since the early 80’s.

I assume that most if not all of the science in these shows and novels is accurate. What is unrealistic is the compressed time frame, where results can be determined in a matter of hours or days rather than weeks or months, as well as the degree to which M.E.’s such as Quincy and Scarpetta get involved in the actual investigation, rather than simply analyzing samples that are delivered to the morgue. Of course, to have a compelling story you have to keep things moving, and an emotionally involved lead character makes for much better drama.

Right now I’m in the middle of a book by Kathy Reichs, featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. (I am fascinated to discover from wikipedia that Brennan’s character is based on Kathy Reichs herself, as is the protagonist of Bones. I’ve just put a hold on Season 1 of Bones through interlibrary loan.) What can be learned from just a skeleton is far less than can be learned from soft tissues, but I’m amazed how much still can be learned from a pile of dry bones.

Today I read in the news about a non-fiction case of what can be learned from some very ancient bones. Pharaoh Tutankhamun (whose tomb was opened 87 years ago today) lived over three thousand years ago (1341 BC – 1323 BC), but scientists have now succeeded in analyzing his DNA to learn more about his physical characteristics, and who his parents were.

National Geographic reports that King Tut was “disabled, malarial, and inbred.” It’s not actually his own DNA that gives evidence of the malaria however – the scientists found DNA of multiple strains of malaria parasites. I’m not sure the DNA showed anything about his deformed foot, either, but they discovered in their examination that he had suffered from necrosis (death) of bone tissue, and would have had to walk with a cane.

The DNA does show, through comparison with DNA from other mummies, that his father was Akhenaten (who, I remember from a history class in 9th grade, tried to impose monotheism on Egypt, an unwelcome innovation reversed by his son Tutankhamun). His mother’s identity is unknown, but the DNA shows that she was Akhenaten’s sister – a practice not particularly unusual among Egyptian royalty. His grandfather – on both sides – was Amenhotep III.

I vaguely remember hearing about King Tut when I was growing up – probably from the big exhibition in Chicago in 1977. I liked history – enough to have taken that elective history class the year before where I learned about Akhenaten – but at the time I was much more interested in the history of Europe. The Greeks developed science and philosophy; the Egyptians performed some impressive engineering feats in constructing the pyramids, but they were way too interested in death rather than life.

I still don’t have much interest in mummies, and less in the costly artifacts buried with them. But I find it amazing – and therefore interesting – how much can be learned from those old dry bones.


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