The original iceman

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Anthropology / Ecology / History

Ever wondered what was happening 3,000 years ago? Surprisingly, there’s still someone around from that time today. A 3,000-year-old person? Yep, it’s true. In fact, he’s actually 3,300 years old. Sure, he might have stopped breathing a long time ago, but he’s looking remarkably good for his age. And whilst he no longer has the power of speech, there’s still an awful lot he can tell us about his life all those years ago. Meet Ötzi, the 3,300-year-old iceman.

Share the love: this post was written by science communication student Abraham Jones.

Surviving the test of time

Discovered on the border of Italy and Austria in 1991, Ötzi was named after the Ötzal Alps in which he was found. The oldest fossilised human ever discovered, the secret to Ötzi’s preservation is the location in which he died. Luckily for us (although not for him) his final resting place was in a shallow and sheltered gully, high up in the Alps.

Otzi, the original iceman (or at least a reconstruction, on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy). Image credit: OetziTheIceman [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via Flickr. Is it just me, or does he look a bit like a young Harvey Keitel?

Ötzi, the original iceman (or at least a reconstruction, on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy). Is it just me, or does he look a bit like Harvey Keitel? Image credit: OetziTheIceman via Flickr.

Immediately after he died, Ötzi’s body was covered in a layer of snow, which later froze to form ice. This process of preservation was so effective that even Ötzi’s clothes survived, including his goat-hide coat, leather loincloth, and shoes made from deer hide and insulating hay. The ice acted as a protective layer from potential scavengers, while also stopping his body from rotting away. As a result, when some German tourists were descending from the same mountain many years later, they assumed they’d simply stumbled on the body of an unlucky hiker. When recovery crews came to identify and free the body, they soon realised that Ötzi was no ordinary corpse. Subsequent analysis of his body showed his death might not have been so accidental either…

A 3,000-year-old murder

The cause of Ötzi’s death has long been discussed and debated. Initially, it was merely thought he had died from exposure after being caught in a snow storm. But further investigation revealed a much grizzlier end for our favourite mummified man. X-rays showed a flint arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder, indicating Ötzi had been shot. Whilst the wound managed to miss all vital organs (it ended up just two centimetres from his lungs), it did sever a major blood vessel in his arm, which would have caused massive bleeding. This kind of blood loss would have resulted in death in just a few short minutes.

But it appears he might not have even lasted that long, with further investigations revealing a fracture to his skull and a major brain bleed, consistent with either a fall or a blow to the head. A deep unhealed cut to the hand gives further evidence for a violent altercation just prior to his death. Was Ötzi involved in a fierce tribal conflict, or perhaps a personal argument that turned violent? Was he followed up the mountains by a bitter enemy hell-bent on revenge? Unfortunately, not even the best science can answer these questions, but there is still much that we can learn from Ötzi.

Trust your gut

In an attempt to learn more about the hours and days before Ötzi’s death, scientists performed a biopsy and examined the contents of his gut. As well as learning what he had for his last meal (some basic bread, plant leaves and animal meat), scientists could trace Ötzi’s movements based on pollen samples found in his stomach. Pollen from a particular tree only found in the warm conditions of a nearby valley indicates Ötzi’s presence there just 12 hours before his death. So what prompted Ötzi to leave the comfort of the valley for the cold and treacherous conditions of the Alps? While he was found carrying some tools and weapons, he had practically no food or water, and seemed poorly prepared for a dangerous trek up the mountain.

It seems that the more we learn, the more questions that are thrown up: did Ötzi’s copper axe indicate he was a warrior, or was it merely a symbol of status? Did his bow and arrow mean he was a hunter, or a warrior? Or perhaps the herbs he carried meant he was a shaman? Many of these questions we can only guess the true answers to, but for someone who died over 3,000 years ago, Ötzi sure has taught us a lot.

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