Scientists discover 41-million-year-old King Tut whale in Egyptian desert

Scientists discover 41-million-year-old King Tut whale in Egyptian desert

Paleontologists announced the discovery of the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of whale that inhabited a sea covering present-day Egypt around 41 million years ago.

The whale, technically classified as a basilosaurid cetacean, was relatively small,  measuring approximately 8 feet long and with an estimated weight of 180 kilograms. This estimate was based on an incomplete skull found alongside both mandibles, the hyoid, and some of the first vertebrae of the neck.

The newly discovered species was named Tutcetus rayanensis after the child pharaoh Tutankhamun (1341 BCE – 1323 BCE) and the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area in Fayum, where it was found. The Fayum Depression is well known for its rich record of early whales. Cetus refers to the Greek word for whale. 

Now an oasis in the Western Desert, Fayoum lay under a tropical sea in the Eocene period 56 to 34 million years ago. Located some 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo, Wadi al-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has turned up hundreds of fossils of some of the earliest forms of whales.

Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut, was a child king becoming the Egyptian ruler in 1332 BCE at the age of 9 and died at the age of 18 or 19. The name was chosen to reflect the small size and young age of Tutcetus, which scientists believe was not yet an adult when it died. Rapid dental development and small bone size suggest that the whale was precocial, meaning it was able to move and feed itself from birth.

The researchers said an analysis of the soft enamel of the whale’s teeth revealed it would have fed on small squids and maybe crustaceans, similar to modern dolphins.

Additionally, the name of the new/ancient whale was chosen to commemorate the centennial of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and coincides with the forthcoming opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. Discovered in 1922, the tomb attracted a media frenzy as a result of the quantity and spectacular appearance of the burial goods. It became the most famous find in the history of Egyptology. The death of the4 archaeologist’s patron, the Earl of Carnarvon, in the midst of the excavation process, inspired speculation that the tomb was cursed. 

Team leader Hesham Sallam, of the American University in Cairo (AUC), said it was a “remarkable discovery that documents one of the first phases of the transition to a fully aquatic lifestyle.”

The basilosauridae were a family of fully aquatic whales that existed at a crucial time when the land mammals transitioned to life in the sea. The basilosauridae developed fish-like characteristics, such as a streamlined body, a strong tail, flippers, and a tail fin. Their hind legs, which previously served them on land, were no longer used for walking but possibly for mating. 

Recently, a basilosaurid in Peru, Perucetus colossus, was discovered, which may be the largest animal ever – weighing between 85 and 340 tons.

“Modern whales migrate to warmer, shallow waters for breeding and reproduction, mirroring the conditions found in Egypt 41 million years ago,” explained Abdullah Gohar, a Ph.D. student at Mansoura University, member of Sallam Lab, and a co-author of the study. “This supports the idea  that what is now known as Fayoum was a crucial breeding area for ancient whales.”

While the King Tut whale is extinct, whales of many varieties still inhabit the region. It is also interesting to note that according to Jewish tradition, a prehistoric whale of immense proportions will be eaten at a feast to usher in the Messiah. A whale, referred to in Hebrew as ‘leviathan’ , is described in the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 75a).

In the Talmud, it is written that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan. God became concerned that in multiplying, the species would destroy the world. God killed the female leviathan, preserving her flesh for the special banquet that will be given to the righteous on the arrival of the Messiah. The banquet will be held inside a huge tent made from the Leviathan’s skin.

This is especially enigmatic as whales are not kosher and are unfit for Jews to eat.

This midrash (homiletic teaching) is the source of an unusual blessing recited during the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), in which we recite upon leaving the sukkah (tabernacle): “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.”

It is unlikely that King Tut was mentioned in the Bible. Some historians suggest that the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus was Ramses III, who reigned from 1186 BCE to 1155 BCE. According to this theory, Moses was born around 1220 BCE during the reign of Ramses II.

Others claim that a more literal reading of the Bible places the Exodus much earlier, in the 15th century BCE. which would correspond to the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep II (1455-1418 BCE). Egyptian history indicates a sudden lack of military action by Amenhotep II beginning in 1446 BCE, a fact that would be consistent with the loss of nearly the entire army at the Red Sea.

Other scholars have set the most probable date for the Exodus as about 1290 BCE. If this is true, then the oppressive pharaoh noted in Exodus (1:2–2:23) was Seti I, who reigned 1318–1304 BCE, and the pharaoh during the Exodus was Ramses II.

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