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 problems stemming from incest. The viability of the male children born of these relationships was undermined and they were therefore genetically compromised. Problems in which resulted from genetic compromise would include increased death rates, and reduced fertility rates (Ogden 86-87).
Although many believe this to be true, not all scholars are convinced. Walter Scheidel, who published a study on the potential genetic side affects of incestuous marriages states: “All in all, the available evidence from Ancient Egypt cannot be taken to refute the model of increasing inbreeding depression and its potentially disastrous consequences for the offspring of brother-sister matings. At the same time, neither the census returns nor any other sources I am aware of offer any indications of unusually elevated levels of infant mortality and severe physical or mental handicaps among the inbreeding families of Egypt” (Scheidel 72).
Although not as easy to diagnose as physical abnormalities, mental disease could as easily been present in the family. One scholar describes the Ptolemaic dynasty as “Degenerate, selfish, greedy, murderous, weak, stupid, vicious, sensual, vengeful, and suffering from the affects of prolonged and repeated inbreeding” (Green 554). In a biography of the most famous Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra IV, Michael Grant states, “Certain elements in her character may have been due to this persistent inbreeding –notably her total absence of moral sense, and a tendency to murder her brothers and sister which may have been partly an inherited family habit”.
Sheila Ager strongly disagrees, and takes the standpoint of nurture over nature: “We are probably safe in assuming that Ptolemaic moral behaviour is likely to have been the result of nurture (or perhaps the lack thereof), rather than nature. It does not seem that we need to spend much time on the question of whether Kleopatra, a kind of Ptolemaic bad seed, actually inherited a concentrated set of chromosomes genetically programming her to murder her siblings.”
Ager does in fact have a strong point. There is no way to definitively say whether or not somebody had mental disease that far back into history and whether or not the proposed compromised mental capacity was in fact caused by a genetic default caused by incestuous inheritance.
An important point Ager also makes is that even though significant inbreeding would seem likely to produce some sort of genetic compromise, one cannot assume that this is definitely the case. The social taboo of present times would automatically believe that this is an inevitable consequence of these matings, but ‘likely is not the same as ‘inevitable’. Combinations of genetic material are random, not determined by a genetically (or divinely) mandated programme of punishment for offenders against the taboo” (Ager 10).
Another important topic that must be discussed in this debate of gene abnormalities is the very famous case of King Tutankhamen. His mummy was discovered nearly a century ago and his young rise to the throne and premature death has both fascinated and puzzled scholars for decades. Only in the last five years have scientists and Egyptologists been able to determine his lineage, and a few likely scenarios for his death. These scenarios came as a surprise to many, mainly because the widely accepted idea that it was a political assignation was not so and in fact the cause of death revolves around the fact that he was a product of incest.
Although King Tutankhamen was not of the Ptolemaic dynasty, he was in fact the child of a full brother-sister marriage. In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists were able to determine the boy pharaoh was in fact plagued with congenital flaws consistent with children of incest. An elongated skull and cleft palate were superficial findings, DNA analysis found evidence of an autoimmune disease that rendered him unable to defend against outside pathogens.
This, they concluded was the condition which most likely left him susceptible to the secondary condition, Malaria, which concluded with his demise. Something important to note was that King Tutankhamen’s tomb possessed the bodies of two fetuses of which were genetically proven to be his daughters, but were not brought to term. It is believed that deleterious genes manifested by incest terminated both of the pregnancies.
This only adds to the argument of the negative affects of incest on the pharaoh and his family. The evidence leads me to believe that the genetic abnormalities in the Egyptian royal family aren’t simply baseless claims from the believers of the taboo. There does seem to be solid proof that these physical abnormalities existed and that they may of greatly affected the Egyptian royal children.
This conclusion does not come without exceptions. I don’t believe that there is enough substantial documentation to believe the claims of mental disease of which resulted in vengeful, murderous personalities. Instead I agree with Ager’s analysis that these traits were produced from nurture rather than nature. There is enough conclusive evidence to state that genetic abnormalities in the royal families of Ancient Egypt were in fact present and that they are not simply a manifestation of the social taboo against incest.
Bibliography "Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun's Family, February 17, 2010, Hawass Et Al. 303 (7): 638 — JAMA." JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, a Weekly Peer-reviewed Medical Journal Published by AMA — JAMA. Web. 14 Nov. 2011. <http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/303/7/638.short?home>. Ashrafian, H. "Familial Proptosis and Obesity in the Ptolemies." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 98.2 (2005): 85-86. Web.
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