The Mysterious Egyptian Pharaoh Who Had Gigantism

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-31 07:11

A relief fragment depicting Sanakht smiting an enemy

[Photo by Captmondo via Wikimedia]



Sanakht, a Third Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh, may have the distinction of having the world's earliest known case of gigantism.


This pharaoh ruled in Egypt about 4,700 years ago—probably. We don't actually know as much about Sanakh and his reign as we'd like. Basic details of his reign—when he came into power, how long he ruled, whether or not he was a good king—elude archaeologists. In fact, archaeologists also aren't sure if the remains they think belong to Sanakh actually do belong to Sanakh.


However, if the remains did once belong to Sanakht, then this mysterious pharaoh may have had the oldest known case of gigantism in the world.


Archaeologists believe that the mastaba K2 at Beit Khallaf near Luxor was Sanakht's tomb. Some Egyptologists, however, say that the tomb actually belonged to a high official, prince, or queen, and not an Egyptian pharaoh. However, it's still possible that the remains found in the tomb did indeed belong to Sanakht.


The First Known Case of Gigantism

Sanakht's skull



The mastaba K2 contained the remains of a tall man—tall for the time period, anyway. In life, the man stood at six feet and one inch tall, a height that definitely stood out at the time. During that time period, the average Egyptian stood at about five feet and four inches tall. Thus, a man standing nine inches taller than the rest of the population was most likely suffering from a medical condition.


Researchers at the University of Zurich believe that Sanakht's unusual height was the result of gigantism. Gigantism is a hormonal condition in which the pituitary gland produces too much of the growth hormone somatotropin. If it turns out that the researchers are correct in their diagnosis, then this may be the earliest known case of gigantism in the world.


The team compared the measurements of Sanakh's skull with data from other anthropological databases. They then used the information to compare Sanakh's height with the height of other Egyptians from the same time period. Generally, Egyptian royalty were taller than commoners. However, other members of the royal family weren't this much taller than the average Egyptian. None of the other known royal remains exhibit signs of gigantism.


A Giant Egyptian Pharaoh?

Mastaba K2, as seen from mastaba K1

[Photo by Ottar Vendel]



An analysis of the skeleton showed that the bones were elongated, which is a sign of “exuberant growth”—gigantism. The facial features, however, did not exhibit the same enlargement.


It's still possible that the remains do not in fact belong to Sanakht, and that the pharaoh's actual tomb is still lost to history. In any case, however, the findings are still significant. Sanakht or not, this may still be the oldest case of gigantism. Thus, the discovery still is of great value, even though the subject isn't a mysterious king.


If the remains turn out to not belong to Sanakh, the individual they belonged to was still likely to have enjoyed a high status in ancient Egyptian society. He was buried with honors, which may indicate that he was not treated differently due to his unusual height. If he had been an Egyptian pharaoh, however, he must have cut quite an impressive figure in the throne room.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!