Friday, January 30, 2009

Royal Inbreeding in Ancient Egypt

Continuing our discussion of inbreeding from yesterday's post: human inbreeding doesn't always occur in the backwoods – sometimes it takes place in palaces. Let's try to find some examples of royal personages who suffered from inbreeding depression.

Egyptian Pharaohs

According to tradition, incestuous marriages between the pharaohs and their sisters were common. If this was the case, it could have been done to emulate the god Osiris and his sister/wife the goddess Isis and/or to keep the sacred bloodline pure. On the other hand, the historical record for a lot of Egyptian antiquity is spotty and open to interpretation; some would argue that this tradition is based on a modern misreading of inscriptions while others claim that brother-sister unions were usually symbolic and that other concubines were the mothers of the pharaohs' offspring. I carried out a superficial search online for examples of brother-sister marriages looking at two of the most famous dynasties of pre-Hellenistic Egypt and here's what I could find.

In the 4th dynasty (c. 2600-2450 BC ?), Khufu (aka "Cheops"), the pharaoh who most scholars believe built the Great Pyramid of Giza, had a wife named Meritites who was maybe his sister (or half-sister). Khufu's father Sneferu and his mother Hetepheres are also believed to have both been children of the pharaoh Huni. Khufu's son and successor Djedefre married his (probably half) sister Hetepheres who had previously been married to another brother or half-brother named Kawab with whom she produced a daughter, the future queen Meresankh.

Looking ahead to the 18th dynasty (c. 1550-1300 BC ?), Thutmosis II was married to his sister Hatshetsup with whom he had a daughter (his "son and heir" Thutmosis III was the child of a lesser wife or concubine). Thutmosis IV's second queen, Iaret, was probably his sister although again she was not the mother of his son and successor Amenhotep III. Finally, the famous King Tutankhamun's wife Ankhesenamen was probably either his half-sister or his niece. Also, DNA tests administered on the mummies of 18th-dynasty royals appear consistent with the genealogical accounts gleaned from inscriptions, including the marriages between close relatives.

As for birth defects among inbred pharaohs, not much evidence has reached us. Looking again at the 18th dynasty (where we found only three likely incestuous marriages), we see that overbites and elongated skulls (dolichocephalism) seemed to run in the Thutmosis family but these were not so pronounced as to be pathological. Scientists have also theorized that Tutankhamun may have had scoliosis or that his predecessor Akhenaten may have had any number of genetic disorders which would explain his bizarre depiction in artwork (we haven't uncovered his mummy so no one knows how accurate these depictions are), but anyway neither of these pharaohs were excessively inbred.

The Ptolemies

When Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy seized control of Egypt around 323 BC, his descendants would continue the local custom of pharaonic brother-sister marriages. This practice was unknown among Greeks and Macedonians (err, not to open up a can of worms there), and it earned Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister/wife Arsinoe the nickname "philadelphoi" (φιλάδελφοι) meaning "brother loving."

Here the record is much clearer, with Greek and Egyptian historians giving us accounts of marriages between brother and sister and between uncle and niece ("double niece", meaning the daughter of his brother AND his sister) which produced offspring. Have a look at the attempted reconstruction of the Ptolemy family tree below. It's open to some debate (check out this site for a more detailed genealogy and discussion), but it gives you some idea of how inbred they became.

But is there any evidence of inbreeding depression? Well... the Ptolemies seemed to have been a pretty ugly family: some of their nicknames make reference to the bearer's potbelly (physcon), puffy cheeks (auletes), and maybe to a mole like a pea (lathyros). Moreover, if the more naturalistic coins bearing the image of the famous Cleopatra are to be believed, she was no Elizabeth Taylor. Again, these physical deficiencies don't really seem pathological, and if obesity ran in the family it was probably due to the Ptolemies' decadent lifestyle.

Results: not much luck so far, let's continue the search for overly inbred individuals among the royal houses of Europe.

Image: photo of Great Pyramid by flckr user romsrini taken from and subject to Creative Common license; photo of coin of Ptolemy Philadelphos & Arsinoe taken by Matthias Kabel from Pergamommuseum in Berlin; Ptolemy genealogy by Muriel Gottrop is in the Wikipedia Commons.


Kevin said...

Interesting stuff. Akenaten was definitely one weird looking dude, if his sculptural depictions are accurate.

Wasn't there a condition called 'Hapsburg lip' or something like that involving European royalty? If I recall correctly, some of the royalty had recessed chins and droopy bottom lips.

Meeg said...

You were two steps ahead of me!