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

Several types of mosses were recovered from Ötzi's digestive tract; similarly, ongoing work by one of us (Dickson) has identified at least six different mosses from the intestines of Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchí, the first ancient glacier body from the Americas. There is virtually no evidence that humans have ever eaten mosses, certainly not as a staple of their diet. In both cases, these minute fragments probably were accidentally ingested. Five thousand and more years ago no materials were manufactured for wrapping, packing, stuffing or wiping. Mosses were highly convenient for such purposes, as many archaeological discoveries across Europe have revealed: various mosses in Viking and medieval cesspits were clearly used as toilet paper. Had Ötzi's provisions been wrapped in moss, that would neatly explain, as an accidental ingestion, the several leaves and leaf fragments of N. complanata recovered from the samples taken from the gut.

Analyzing archaeological remains of bone and hair for their abundances of the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen (carbon 13 and nitrogen 15) can provide information about a persons diet. Nitrogen 15 can reveal the extent to which the individual relied on animal or plant protein. Carbon 13 can indicate the type of food plant the person ate and whether seafood or terrestrial carbon was an important part of the diet.

The isotopic data agree with the other evidence that tzi ate a mixed diet of plants and animals. He obtained about 30 percent of his dietary nitrogen from animal protein and the rest from plants. This value is consistent with those found in hunter-gatherer tribes living today. The data also indicate that seafood was probably not a component of his diet, a finding that makes sense because of the great distance to the sea.

What Was He Doing There?
TO THIS DAY, in what may be an ancient custom, shepherds take their flocks from the Schnalstal up to high pastures in the Ötztal in June and bring them down again in September. The body was found near one of the traditional routes, which is why early theories held that he was a shepherd. Nothing about his clothing or equipment, however, proves that he had done such work. No wool was on or around his person, no dead collie by his feet, no crook in his hand. Some support for the shepherd hypothesis comes from the grass and bast cape, which has modern parallels in garments worn by shepherds in the Balkans, but that alone is not conclusive; for all we know, it was standard dress for travelers at that time.

Additional doubts about the shepherd theory come from a recent investigation of more than 100 dung pellets from the find spot by Oeggl and his colleagues. Pollen and macrofossil analyses can distinguish between dung derived from livestock (such as from a sheep or goat) or from game (an ibex or a chamois). The pellets were collected during the archaeological excavation in 1992, and multiple carbon 14 dates give ages of 5400 to 2000 B.C.E. The analyses have shown that all the droppings derive from wild animals grazing in high-altitudinal habitats. This finding weakens the argument that seasonal migration of livestock was practiced in Neolithic times in that area and casts serious doubt on the explanation of tzi having been a shepherd.

Analysis of the few strands of Ötzi's hair that survived reveals very high values of both arsenic and copper. The published explanation (also given independently on television) was that he had taken part in the smelting of copper. But Geoffrey Grime of the University of Surrey in England now considers that these exceptional levels may have resulted from the action of metal-fixing bacteria after Ötzi died and that the copper was on, not in, the hair. Further support for the possibility of copper having attached itself to the hair after death comes from the presence of the moss Mielichhoferia elongata, called copper moss, which spreads preferentially on copper-bearing rocks. It has been found growing at the site by one of us (Dickson) and, independently, by Ronald D. Porley of the U.K. government conservation agency English Nature.

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