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Mummy’s Curse

Mummy’s Curse Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Egyptian mummies have given us great insight into a great ancient culture. They've also inspired a number of horror stories. For example, it's said that anyone who dared enter a mummy's tomb would die a horrible, premature death. In this Science Update, you'll hear about a scientific investigation that tested this legend.


Transcript

The myth of the Mummy's Curse. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In 1923, the discovery of King Tut's tomb in Egypt caused a sensation. Six weeks after the tomb's opening, the financier of the expedition died suddenly, and soon, a rumor started circulating about a mummy's curse—a rumor that persists today.

But a study published last month in the British Medical Journal debunks the legend. Mark Nelson, an epidemiologist at Monash University in Australia, compared two groups, or cohorts, connected to the expedition.

Nelson:

A cohort study refers to looking at two groups of people: one who has been exposed to whatever you're investigating, the other who has not. And following them over time.

Nelson compared the fates of those who breached the inner doors of the tomb with Westerners who were in Egypt but not exposed to the so-called curse. He found that members of the group who went into the tomb died eight years sooner than the others.

Nelson:

So there superficially is evidence that there is a curse because they died sooner than the other group.

But the exposed group was older and almost all male. So it made sense they would die earlier. After accounting for these effects, Nelson found no difference in survival, and therefore, no Mummy's Curse. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.


Making Sense of the Research

You might wonder why Nelson went through the trouble to do this study. The very idea of a mummy's curse might seem ridiculous to you, and you might think that a scientist would be even more skeptical.

However, this study shows that being skeptical doesn't mean just dismissing something out of hand. Rather, it means withholding judgment on an idea until you see what the evidence has to say. In this case, even though the mummy's curse has been widely talked about, it hadn't been scientifically investigated. So from a scientific point of view, the mummy's curse had neither been proven nor disproven.

So Nelson designed a study that treated the "mummy's curse" as a potential cause of early death, like smoking. In order to see if the "curse" had any effect on those exposed to it, first he needed to define what the "curse" was and who, if anybody, might be affected by it. This is trickier than you might think. The legend associated the "curse" with anyone who opened a mummy's tomb, but it doesn't specify how close you have to be to the tomb, how long the curse lasts, or if people who visited the tomb days or years later might be affected. For this study, Nelson assumed that the curse would cause people to die sooner than expected, by any means, and would affect only those who were present when some part of Tut's tomb was opened for the first time. This group of people—25 in all—made up the "exposed" group.

Next, Nelson needed an "unexposed" group to compare them to. Ideally, this group would be as similar as possible to the "exposed" group except on the issue of the mummy's curse. So he looked for Westerners who were in Egypt during the time of the curse but not present when the tomb was opened. (He found 19.) This increased the likelihood that any differences between the two groups were related to the "curse" and not to other factors.

However, as the report suggests, there were still key differences between the two groups to factor out. On the surface, the "exposed" people did die a little sooner and younger than "unexposed" people. This, combined with a few sensationalistic stories that linked specific people's deaths to the "curse," may have helped contribute to the legend. However, it turns out that these differences can be entirely explained by age and sex. So unless the curse works in very mysterious ways, this study suggests it's nothing more than superstition.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a cohort study? How was it applied to test the mummy's curse?
  2. What assumptions did the study's authors need to make in order to do this study?
  3. What is the purpose of doing research like this? Is it worth time and effort?
  4. Suppose that the "cursed" group really did die younger and sooner than the "unexposed" group—even after age and gender were accounted for. What are some possible natural explanations for this observation? How would you test them?

For Educators

Read the original The mummy's curse: historical cohort study in the British Medical Journal.

In Unwrapping Mummies, by National Geographic Xpeditions, students play the role of archaeologists who specialize in ancient mummies.

The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP, is an independent skeptics' organization that advocates the scientific testing of supernatural phenomena.


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