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See Inside Mysteries of the Ancient Ones

The Iceman Reconsidered [Preview]

Where was the Iceman's home, and what was he doing at the high mountain pass where he died? Painstaking research--especially of plant remains found with the body--contradicts many of the initial speculations

A belted pouch contained a tinder kit, which held a bracket fungus that grows on trees, known as the true tinder fungus, and iron pyrites and flints for making sparks. A small tool for sharpening the flints was also found with the body. On hide thongs, tzi carried two pierced pieces of birch bracket fungus; it is known to contain pharmacologically active compounds (triterpens) and so may have been used medicinally. There were also the fragments of a net, the frame of a backpack, and two containers made of birch bark; one held both charcoal and leaves of Norway maple--perhaps it originally transported embers wrapped in the leaves.

Where Was He From?
IN THIS PART OF THE ALPS, the valleys run north and south between towering ranges of mountains. Thus, the question of Ötzi's homeland resolves itself into north versus south rather than east versus west. The botanical evidence points to the south. A Neolithic site has been discovered at Juval, a medieval castle at the southern end of the Schnalstal, more than two thousand meters lower but only 15 kilometers from the hollow as the crow flies. Archaeologists have not excavated the site in modern times, and there has been no radiocarbon dating, but Juval is the nearest place to the hollow where a number of the flowering plants and mosses associated with Ötzi now grow. We have no reason to suppose that they did not grow there in prehistoric times, and so perhaps that is the very place where Ötzi lived.

When his clothes were conserved, the washing revealed many plant fragments, including a mass of the large woodland moss Neckera complanata. This moss and others he had carried grow to the north and to the south of where he was found, but the southern sources are much closer. N. complanata grows in some abundance near Juval. Wolfgang Hofbauer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Valley, Germany, has discovered that this moss grows, in more moderate amounts, at Vernagt (Vernago), just 1,450 meters lower than the site and only five kilometers away. And most recently, Alexandra Schmidl of the University of Innsbruck Institute of Botany discovered small leaf fragments of the moss Anomodon viticulosus in samples taken from the colon. This woodland moss grows with N. complanata in lowermost Schnalstal.

If Juval was not his home, signs of Neolithic occupation at other locations in the immediately adjacent Vinschgau (Val Venosta), the valley of the river Etsch (Adige), offer other possibilities. In contrast, to the north, the nearest known Stone Age settlements are many tens of kilometers away, and we are not aware of any Neolithic settlements in the Ventertal or elsewhere in the Ötztal. If Ötzi's home was indeed in lowermost Schnalstal or in Vinschgau, then his community lived in a region of mild, short, largely snow-free winters, especially so if the climate was then slightly warmer.

Investigations by Wolfgang Müller of the Australian National University in Canberra of the isotopic composition of the Icemans tooth enamel, bones and intestine and of soils and water of the region indicate that he had likely grown up in one area, near Brixen in the Eisack Valley, north of Bolzano, and in later life migrated to Vinschgau in the Etsch and Schnals valleys.

What Did He Eat?
THE ONGOING STUDIES of the plant remains in samples taken from the digestive tract provide direct evidence of some of Ötzi's last meals. One of us (Oeggl) has detected bran of the primitive wheat called einkorn, so fine that it may well have been ground into flour for baking bread rather than having been made into a gruel. Microscopic debris of as yet unidentified types shows that he had eaten other plants as well. And in their DNA studies of food residues in the intestines, Franco Rollo and his team at the University of Camerino in Italy recognized both red deer and alpine ibex (wild goat). Splinters of ibex neck bones were also discovered close to Ötzi's body. A solitary but whole sloe lay near the corpse as well. Sloes are small, bitter, plumlike fruit, and Ötzi may have been carrying dried sloes as provisions.

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