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Was an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh a Giant?

Sa-Nakht may be the oldest known case of acromegaly.

Possible skull of the ancient Egyptian giant-pharaoh, Sa-Nakht.
Possible skull of the ancient Egyptian giant-pharaoh, Sa-Nakht. Public domain

He sounds like he came straight out of a myth—an ancient Egyptian pharaoh-giant, ruling (quite literally) from on high. A new study suggests, however, that this might not be a such a tall tale. The supposed remains of Sa-Nakht, an ancient pharaoh living around 2700 B.C., suggest that this ruler may have had one of the earliest known cases of gigantism, or acromegaly.

In the study, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, Michael E. Habicht from the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, and his colleagues reanalyzed measurements and photographs of the bones thought to be those of Sa-Nakht, and found evidence of “exuberant growth,” usually a sign of acromegaly. The condition usually occurs when the body generates too much growth hormone, possibly because of a pituitary tumor. Though today he would only be a little above average height—just under six-foot-two—he would have towered above his contemporaries. In fact, most ancient Egyptian men stood about five-foot-six, Habicht told Live Science.

While pharaohs were, in fact, taller than the rest of the population in general, probably due to better access to healthcare and nutritious food, this individual stood a full five inches taller than the next tallest recorded pharaoh, Ramesses II. No other ancient Egyptian royals are known or thought to have been giants, though researchers say they can’t be sure that the remains, discovered in an elite tomb in 1901, are truly Sa-Nakht’s. Egyptologists actually know very little about him.

In ancient Egypt, very tall people don’t seem to have had any particular social advantages or disadvantages. Dwarves, on the other hand, were held in very high esteem, and sometimes served as pharaoh’s assistants or were thought of as divine.