Mysterious Egyptian Pharaoh Had Oldest Known Case Of Gigantism

Oh hi there. Lipowski Milan/Shutterstock

Sanakht, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 4,700-year-old Third Dynasty, has puzzled archaeologists and historians for some time. When exactly he took power, when he died, and what exactly his reign was like remain ambiguous, as does the location of his burial place. Most of what’s known about him comes from a handful of relics left over from that long-lost time period.

Since the early 20th Century, however, a group of researchers have considered the skeletal remains of a man found in 1901 at the small village of Beit Khallaf to belong to that of Sanakht. Whether or not this truly is the missing king, the bones belonged to a person who was unusually tall for that time – 1.87 meters (6.14 feet), about 12 percent above the average.

Now, as reported in The Lancet: Diabetes & Endocrinology, the suspected pharaonic remains used to be someone who suffered from gigantism. A team from the University of Zurich have been reanalyzing work conducted on the remains and have come to the conclusion that this may be the oldest example of the condition in human history.

Gigantism is triggered by the overproduction of growth hormones during childhood. This doesn’t simply make someone tall; they grow to a height way in excess of what their parentage suggests they should. Their hands and feet expand rapidly at first, and the forehead, jaw and nose often follow suit.

There are several complications associated with gigantism, but high blood pressure is arguably the most dangerous, as it can end in a fatal heart attack.

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Photographs from 1901 of the possible skull of Pharaoh Sanakht. Charles S. Myers/Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

In both cases, the conditions are triggered by a benign tumor in or on the pituitary gland, and it can today be mitigated against by surgically removing said growth. Back in Ancient Egypt, however, this simply wasn’t an option.

An excess of growth hormones during adulthood, not childhood, is technically known as acromegaly. This involves elongated sections of the body rather than excessive tallness, generally speaking, and the oldest case of this dates back to 11,500 years ago, to a person excavated in New Mexico.

Based on the skeletal remains, it’s almost certain that the person they belonged to had gigantism, and wasn’t merely quite vertically gifted. He was probably not the first to experience the condition, but so far, he’s the oldest known example of it.

As pointed out by Atlas Obscura, if this was Sanakht, being this tall wouldn’t have granted him any societal advantages. In fact, if he had dwarfism, he would have been held in particularly high regard. In any case, he would have appeared as a pretty imposing figure in whatever throne room he frequented back in the day.

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