Genetic Abnormalities in Ancient Egyptian Royal Families
It seems that throughout history, the words royalty and incest have gone hand in hand. Familial interbreeding occurred throughout a significant number of royal lines, including the British, Hawaiian, and Japanese thrones. However, none of these families, nor any other royal family for that matter, can match the profound rate at which the Egyptians practiced incest.
Ancient Egyptian royal marriages were almost exclusively restricted to relatives, with very few exceptions. This practice originated from the belief that in many cases, Gods bred with their sisters or brothers, and since royals were the direct descendents of the Gods, they must practice incest as well. Since the pharaonic bloodline ran through the females, males born to royal families must marry female relatives to assume the position of pharaoh. This, in many cases, included marrying a half or even full blood sibling. Females of royal descent were prohibited from marrying down; this meant they must stay within their own royal bloodline. This caused out of control interfamilial breeding among the royals. This also meant many children born to parents of similar genetics. Today, we understand the medical repercussions of bearing children to two closely related people, and the genetic abnormalities that may ensue.
Although many believe the taboo that children produced by closely related people are always sickly, or must have a genetic default of some sort, this is just not the case. Perfectly healthy children can be born to an incestuous situation, and in fact, most are perfectly healthy. The problem arises with repetitive inbreeding over hundreds of years, similar to the Egyptian royal line. This constant inbreeding allows normally recessive alleles to be expressed. These atypical recessive genes are for the most part masked by normal, dominant genes in the rest of the population where natural selection is occurring through non-related humans, but not masked in small breeding groups of royals. This causes normally rare occurrences in the genome to be expressed, and severe diseases to occur. It has been widely believed that the Egyptian royals, more specifically the Ptolemaic dynasty and even King Tutankhamen, were riddled with genetic abnormalities, disorders, and death. However, new arguments are arising which conflict this idea, adding that there is in fact no evidence to prove this. So, were there actually significant genetic abnormalities in ancient Egyptian royal children, or is it simply a widely accepted belief manifested by a social taboo?
The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt from 323 BCE to 30 BC during the Hellenic period. The dynasty is one of the most famed cases of repetitive incestuous breeding amount royalty and it is speculated that the family suffered from a number of familial diseases. Although the dynasty’s breeding patterns are in no way definite, Figure 1 provides an idea of the overlapping mating habits of the royals.
If the Ptolemaic dynasty did in fact suffer from such genetic diseases, then specifically what did they suffer from? Historians and scientists alike agree that the dynasty has been portrayed on coins and in sculptures with large eyes and
prominent necks. These symptoms have been interpreted as familial Graves’ disease (Ashrafian 85). The family was also famous for their long history of morbid obesity, which is interesting because morbid obesity is not a symptom of hyperthyroidism, which is the main symptom of Graves’ Disease. Another idea has been proposed to explain the family’s physical description, “The presence of neck masses, I suggest, may implicate a multiorgan fibrotic condition such as Erdheim-Chester disease or familial multifocal fibrosclerosis in which thyroiditis can coincide with obesity and proptosis” (Nielsen 26).
Daniel Ogden, an anthropological historian, also believes that the Ptolemaic dynasty did in fact suffer from the affects of many...
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