His name was Sanakhat or Sa-Nakhat and he reigned for about 18 years as an Egyptian pharaoh in the Third Dynasty during the Old Kingdom, starting around 2650 BCE. His remains were found in 1901 in a tomb, not a pyramid, near Beit Khallaf in upper Egypt, the location of a number of Third Dynasty tombs. Not much else was known about Sanakhat until a recent study took another look at his skull and bones and determined that he not only ruled over but also towered over his subjects because he was … a giant!
The report in the August issue of The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology opens with the usual caveat that the term ‘giant’ is relative to the size of everyone else living at the time, but Sanakhat’s size was unusual in a number of ways. Led by Francesco M. Galassi, from the University of Zurich, researchers took a number of new and detailed measurements of Sanakht’s skeletal remains, extrapolated his probable size and compared it to known data on the size of the average Egyptian 4,700 years ago.
What they found was big. Sanakht was at least 187 cm or 6 foot 1 inches tall. That would make him a small NBA player today but a giant among his fellow, albeit non-royal, Egyptians who averaged about 162.5 cm or 5 foot 4 inches. That huge height difference is much more than what could be attributed to the royals eating better than the commoners, so the researchers concluded that Sanakht was a true Egyptian giant. And not just any giant. Based on archeological records, Sanakht was taller than any known Egyptian pharaoh before or after him.
What made Sanakht a giant? Before anyone starts shouting “Alien!”, the researchers anticipated the question. They found that his bones showed “signs of exuberant growth” but his skull did not. Today, those are indicators of gigantism, a hormonal condition that results in abnormal and excessive growth in young children (if the growth occurs in adulthood, it’s known as acromegaly) and is generally caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland. While today it can be treated if identified early, that obviously wasn’t the case in 2650 BCE.
That date — 2650 BCE – is significant because it makes Sanakht the oldest known case of gigantism … if it’s really Sanakht. While the remains were found in an elite tomb in an area known for having tombs from the Third Dynasty, there’s little to identify these as Sanakht. Also, the giant size of the skeleton is unique among other short-statured Third Dynasty rulers he would have been related to. The tomb contained nothing more that would show Sanakht’s actual dates of ruling nor his place in the dynastic line.
Whether the remains are Sanakht or some other elite individual, the discovery is important because it dates the condition of gigantism further back in history – potentially explaining many other stories of giants – and it shows that, in a culture that preferred short people and revered dwarfs, a giant was also considered special.
Even without a basketball.