One of the biggest science stories this past year was the publication of the DNA analysis of the remains of King Tut — a project that seemed to finally resolve the mystery of the young pharaoh’s death and revealed a family secret: Tut's parents were siblings. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, commented at length on the discoveries in the Journal of the American Medical Association. To Markel, the genetic analysis of King Tut further complicates sticky questions about how freely researchers should extract information from the dead — and how much responsibility we bear toward the dead's wishes and privacy. Markel’s eighth book, An Anatomy of Addiction, about Sigmund Freud’s and William Halstead’s adventures with cocaine, will be published next year by Pantheon.
Why do researchers want to study the DNA of mummies and other old bodies?
Mummies offer a unique quarry for paleopathologists and historians: well-preserved, albeit long dead, bodies and organs. Ordinarily, after less than a hundred years, there's not much left to a body other than the skeleton. You can find out a lot from bones through carbon dating and so on. You can also use DNA analysis to search for infectious agents that may have spread to that corpse’s bones. But it's nothing like the wealth of pathological material you can extract from a preserved body. And the mummification process developed by the Egyptians was remarkably good at preserving human organs and tissues. You can do a better examination on a mummy than on any other human remains I can think of, unless, perhaps, a body frozen in permafrost.
Today, genetic tools let us find out even more. In King Tut's body, for instance, the DNA analysis showed that he had one of the earliest recorded cases of malaria and an inherited bone disorder. This is valuable health and historical information. The researchers were also able to better establish the lineage of the pharaoh’s family, which is of great importance to Egyptologists because it helps tell us how the pharaohs’ preserved political power and conducted their personal lives.
So analyzing the DNA can increase our knowledge about medicine and diseases. And it can increase our knowledge of the historical record, sometimes in a way nothing else can; all that is of real value. But it's not free and clear. We all have to ask whether the value we get from such bodily intrusions transcends the ethical, moral, or religious compromises we must make. You have to balance public good against individual privacy rights and considerations.
Did you have any qualms about whether the benefits outweighed the privacy violations in the King Tut case?
I think with Tut the benefits outweighed the compromises. Moreover, the researchers conducting this study took great pains to consult ethicists and policymakers. That said, I remain of mixed mind about the growing enterprise of exhuming bodies for research.
To start with, digging up bodies automatically gets you into murky territory. Unless they've willed their bodies to science, most people expect their bodies to be left alone. And we know the mummies especially expected that. They made those tombs difficult to get into for a reason: They did not want to be disturbed as they went on to the River of the Dead and the afterlife. But we found them, and we have disturbed them repeatedly.
So we have violated their wishes. How do we justify this?
In Tut's case, that cow left the barn back in the 1920s, when his tomb was discovered. His remains have been examined numerous times over the past 90 years, and his possessions have been the stuff of museum shows for decades.
But we also have to acknowledge that Tut's privacy desires have been repeatedly overridden in the name of research and exhibition. Intellectuals want answers to their questions. Historians dig into the past. We love to read other people's mail; we read their diaries. Sometimes people have given their letters or diaries to posterity, so there's no gray area. Other times, we are required to weigh the privacy of the dead against the need or desire to extract meaningful historical information. Looking at DNA is essentially an extension of these sorts of incursions.
In practice, how does one balance the responsibility both to science and to the dead?
A good example is the effort over the last couple years to investigate flu virus samples from past pandemics. With the rise of novel influenza virus strains spreading around the world, scientists became very interested in studying the genome of the infamous 1918-19 flu virus that caused the most deadly pandemic in human history. The obvious place to get it was from the remains of people who died of it.
Two different teams took two different approaches. One hunted for the virus in a huge collection of preserved tissue samples kept by the Centers for Disease Control and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The tissues all have been rendered anonymous, to protect the privacy and family histories of descendants. Of course, consent isn't always clear, as we didn’t start asking for consent until recently. But to me, in this case, the medical and public health value of the project easily overrode qualms about consent from an anonymous person.
Meanwhile, another group had the idea to go to Sweden and get some virus from bodies that had been dug out of the permafrost. That made me a little squeamish. I’m not sure I’d have supported that project when it was proposed, had I been asked.
Are there situations where the rights of a culture might be violated? I'm thinking of the controversy a few years back involving the remains of Native Americans held by museums.
There you had a problem with consent and provenance along with a host of cultural and social issues. Most of these Native American artifacts were stolen; they were dug up or discovered, and then hoarded or sold. You have to figure out the legal issues of who “owns” these materials to start with.
With some mummy remains, this is still conceivably an issue. Like millions of tourists, I love seeing the mummies at the British Museum, but I also feel a little queasy looking at them, as many were removed from their tombs and brought back by British explorers without any formal permission. For a long time the practice was that if you conquered or explored a country, you could take what you found. Our museums are full of those things. Today you can't do that. And perhaps there's a sense in which extracting DNA from those bodies would constitute a new intrusion or taking.
We didn't used to think of these things. But we think about them more now, as we should. None of this, even with mummies, is cut and dried.