On September 9, 1991, a German couple from Nuremberg, Helmut and Erika Simon, were hiking the trails along the Niederjochferner Glacier, at about 3,200 meters in the Otzal Alps, which lie east of the Inn River along the border of Italy and Austria, when they discovered a corpse, the upper part of which protruded from the ice. In the days that followed, some damage to the body occurred from removal attempts by local authorities. But by September 23, the exposed body was wrapped, placed in a coffin, and, together with a bag full of material that had been collected at the site, ultimately delivered for study at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. It was declared a prehistoric find and represented one of the oldest and best-preserved human mummies by freezing ever found. Named “Otzi the Iceman,” after the Otzal Alps where he was found, he immediately became the object of border dispute between Italy and Austria as to his ownership. This was resolved when authorities confirmed that the spot he had been found was located in Italy. After years of study at the University of Innsbruck, Otzi was finally removed to a specially built exhibit in the new Museo Archeologic dell’Alato Adige, in Bolzano, Italy. His body was placed in a special chamber, which can be viewed through a small porthole kept at a constant 6°C and a humidity rate of 99%.
After many revisions of data and rejections of initial hypotheses, current findings concerning the Iceman’s body and possessions are emerging. Articles found on or near the body included a longbow, a quiver containing the makings of arrows, an axe, knife, a wooden-framed backpack, two bark containers, and a belt pouch.
The smooth and weathered handle of the axe was made of yew, with a metal blade inserted into the notch of the handle and tied with a strip of leather. Analysis of the axe blade revealed that it was not bronze, as had been hypothesized, but almost pure copper, with traces of arsenic and silver. According to radiocarbon dating, the Iceman died around 3300 BCE, in the New Stone Age or Neolithic period. It rendered inaccurate much of what archaeologists previously thought they knew about the people and culture of this region and gave greater insight into the Stone Age. The axe was an advanced design that was thought to be in use around 2000 BCE, when the people of the southern Alps still relied on stone for most of their tools. Revisions now needed to be made concerning the advanced stage of Stone Age man and the date of the Copper Age.
The remnants of a quiver, now recognized as the oldest-surviving one in the world, have been described as made of “bald skin,” but possibly had originally been made of fur, as there were some hairs wedged in a side seam. A wooden rod stitched onto the side of the quiver with a piece of leather gave shape to it. The top flap of the quiver had been ripped off, exposing the ends of 14 unfinished arrow shafts, 2 of which had feathers attached, together with 2 attached flint arrowheads. Also inside were wrapped four pieces of stag antler, probably destined to be fashioned into arrowheads. The bow was fractured, and the carrying strap for the quiver missing, as was the hood closure; three arrow shafts were broken, and one arrowhead was broken—all yet to be explained as to their condition. Before this discovery, scientists had not known with certainty that people had used quivers at this time.
At his discovery, it was observed that the Iceman had a primitive boot on the right foot, and grass was noted sticking out of the tip of the boot and bound around the foot by some shredded string and some worn leather. The remains of a second shoe were also found nearby. Upon examination, it was noted that the boot consisted of three main parts: the grass insulation, a net that held the grass around the foot, and bearskin soles with red-deerskin insteps and uppers. The bottom edge of the net had loops that attached a piece of leather woven around the soles. Across the bottom of the sole was a strip of leather, probably designed to reduce slippage. With the fur side of the skin inside the sole, several holes around the insteps served as eyelets to bind the grass and uppers tightly.
Into these boots were tucked leggings made from scraps of fur sewn together that reached nearly to the groin. A fur tab found inside the boot and a second one sewn onto the edge of one of the other garments indicated that these were not real pants, but suggested that the mechanism for attachment was analogous to garterlike straps and stockings. The Iceman would slip his feet through the tubular “leggings” and cinch it around his thighs with a leather strap through openings along the tip of the legging. A strap extended from the front of each legging up to his waist, where it was attached to a belt that secured his loincloth. The whole outfit was so unusual that no prehistorian had ever seen or predicted these leggings and attachments.
Another garment had to have covered the torso, and remnants of it suggest that the article was likely a huge fur coat or cape of some kind, but with no evidence of sleeves or collar remaining; this interpretation remains open.
Topping all of these clothes was a long cape of plaited grass ending past the knees. It was made of long bundles of grass arranged vertically parallel to one another and bound together at short intervals by two twisted grasses plaited horizontally. The lower part of the cape was not plaited, allowing the grass to hang freely in a long fringe. A bearskin hat completed the outfit.
A knife had an approximately 7.5 cm blade made of gray flexed flint common in Europe. The actual length is unknown because the tip had been broken off. The edge of the blade was serrated, resulting from retouching, a kind of sharpening in which small pieces are broken off using a bone or antler as a tool. It also had a polish on the edge of the blade from cutting grass. Among the other artifacts were a finely woven grass sheath nearly matching that of the knife blade. A grass string coming off the handle may have aided the Iceman in carrying it.
A leather pouch attached to a long leather belt worn around the waist and under the coat was in a position like none other ever seen from prehistory. The contents could be accessed through an 8 cm gap along the top seam or laced shut. The pouch contained three flint blades of different types, a piece of hollow goat or sheep bone, and the rest of the small space filled with a wad of tinder bracket, Fomes fomentarius, a few hairs, and traces of pyrite. By keeping the pouch inside his coat and next to the skin, Otzi had found an effective way to keep his kindling dry.
Other artifacts of interest included a leather tassel threaded through a white marble disc, a wooden object from which protruded an antler bone, and two pieces of fungus punched and threaded onto strips of leather. Both pieces of fungus were identified as Piptoporus betulinus, a birch polypore, a common type of mushroom that grew on birch trees. These fungi were speculated to possibly have some medicinal value, while the antler bone was thought to be a retoucher.
Remains of 17 types of trees and shrubs have been identified so far among Otzi’s belongings. The bark used to make his containers was composed of white birch, the longbow and axe handle of yew, and his knife handle of ash. The arrow shafts were fashioned from viburum and cornus. The backpack frame was of larch and hazel. Leaves of Norway maple and juniper were used as the insulating material for the charcoal embers carried in one of the containers, while the fuel was composed of a mixture of willow, alder, spruce, pine, and elm. All of these, together with his layers of skins and grass revealed the uses of the natural environment some 5,300 years ago.
Otzi’s body has undergone extensive and intensive study. Originally thought to be a person who had recently died in a mountain climbing or hiking accident, the corpse was subjected to rough treatment trying to free it from the ice. When using a nearby stick (his bow) failed, a jackhammer and ice pick were used, damaging the clothing and drilling a hole in his hip. Compounding the problem, his left arm was broken trying to force the body into a coffin. Upon verification that this was an archaeological find and with the stabilization of the climatic conditions in the laboratory, a series of tests were initiated that could possibly reveal injuries, disease, and any physiological abnormalities. X-rays and CT-scans that produced cross-sectional images, each millimeter wide, confirmed the damage to the left hip, buttock, and thigh area that had been obliterated by the rough removal attempts. The heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, and kidneys were dissected and shrunken to almost nothing, with the brain reduced to the size of a fist. The CT-scans also revealed that the abdominal and carotid arteries were heavily calcified, denoting arteriosclerosis; rather surprising, since Otzi, at his death, was determined to have been in his 40s.
The organs were so dissected that a standard autopsy was ruled out, and samples of tissues were the only means of investigation. Microscopic analysis of a small sample of semidigested food was removed from the transverse colon. The position and progress of the food indicated that the Iceman’s last meal had been eaten about 8 hours before he died. It consisted of a mass of material made up of einkorn whet, one of the few domesticated grains grown in this part of the world during the Iceman’s life span. Its presence indicated contact with an agricultural community common in the Neolithic period of prehistory, in which people lived in semipermanent settlements, raising animals and engaging agriculture. The preponderance of bran, the outer skin of the wheat grain, suggested that the wheat had been finely ground and made into a flatbread. In contrast with modern breadmaking using yeast, which requires a high level of gluten in order to rise, einkorn wheat contains low levels of gluten, so the bread was unleavened, tough, and hard. If the einkorn had been eaten whole or boiled, then whole or larger pieces of the grain would have been evident. In addition, small particles of charcoal, which came from the wood of conifers, were found attached to the bran, indicating some sort of baking process. Examination under the electron microscope revealed tiny muscle fibers and a burned bit of bone and suggested that the Iceman had also eaten meat, together with some plant material. Other contents of the sample included the eggs of the parasitic human whipworm, Tirchuris trichiura, which produce symptoms of stomachache and diarrhea after infestation. These could be ingested via plant material or the intake of water.
Many different varieties of pollen were detected on the clothing and in the colon sample. These durable grains contain a record of the Iceman’s surroundings at the time before his death. When studying pollen samples, the pollen grains generally are examined as to their method of transmission, type, and range, and then compared to various locations in the proximity of the site. In this sample, the preponderance of pollen was that of the hope hornbeam. The remarkable preservation of the pollen gametophytes indicated that the pollen must have been released from the trees concomitant with ingestion, because if they had remained longer in Otzi’s colon, then they would have decayed. This observation, together with the fact that the pollen was of the spring blossoming varieties, meant the downfall of one of the hypotheses surrounding of his death—that he had succumbed after being caught in some early blizzard in the fall, as no autumn blossoming varieties were present in the colon.
Corroborating evidence came from a sample organic material that had been excavated near the site. A wad of 14 maple leaves, one wrapped inside another, revealed tiny chunks of charcoal, together with some spruce and juniper needles and birch bark pieces. The maple leaves were missing the stems and, when tested, still had chlorophyll in them, indicating that they were removed from the tree sometime in the spring of the year. If they had been picked in the fall, either from the ground or the trees, the stems would be present and the chlorophyll missing. Further investigation implied that the leaves had been stripped from the tree in the spring in one swift fashion, leaving the stems on the tree.
Fourteen sets of bluish-black marks on the Iceman’s back run parallel to the spine in four groups of vertical stripes varying in length from 2.8 to 3 cm and in width from 2 to 3 mm. Further down the body, on the inside of the Iceman’s right knee in the shape of a cross, was another tattoo, repeated on the lower-left ankle.
Although Otzi’s body was discovered in 1991, it was not until 2001 that new X-rays were taken, studied, and subsequently revealed that a flint arrowhead had hit the Iceman in the back, moved upward, shattering the shoulder blade, and was embedded on the left side of his chest within a few centimeters of the left lung and about 10 cm from his heart. The wooden arrow shaft was missing, but probing confirmed the presence of an entry wound that had not had time to heal.
Computerized tomography (CT) has further revealed the damage done to nerves and major blood vessels, paralyzing his left arm and causing major internal bleeding, contributed to his death. He had also received cuts on the hands, wrists, and rib cage. Many theories abound concerning the actual scenario surrounding his demise.
DNA tests have resulted in further complications and new speculations about the Iceman’s final days. Samples of blood taken from the antler-skinning tool, arrows, axe handle, and coat revealed they were from four different DNA sequences: one on the knife blade, two different ones on one arrow, and a fourth on the coat.
Samples of the Iceman’s tooth enamel, bones, and minerals, which came from the food via soil and water, have helped establish a probable location of Otzi’s childhood. Similar analyses were made from the minerals in his adult bones and compared with a wide area of the Tyrolean Alps. Together with botanical evidence, it appears that the Iceman’s early home was to the south of the find but most of his adult life was spent somewhat more in the northern valleys.
Speculation and research continue to change the interpretation of all aspects of Otzi’s life, health, use of his environment, and the circumstances of his death. His contributions to the understanding of early man and his place in nature have been far-reaching and significant. Science, as the best-tested information that is presently known, is continuing to be validated, and with further study and increased technologies made available, a more refined picture will result.
- Cullen, R. (2003, February). Testimony from the Iceman. Smithsonian, pp. 42-50.
- Fowler, B. (2001). Iceman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Holden, C. (2003). Isotopic data pinpoint Iceman’s origin. Science, 302, 759-761.
- Müller, H. F., Hallidan, A. N., McCulloch, M. T., & Wartho, J. A. (2003). Origin and migration of the alpine Iceman. Science, 302, 862-865.