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

Another hypothesis is that Ötzi was a hunter of alpine ibex; the longbow and quiver of arrows may support this notion. If, however, he had been actively engaged in hunting at the time of his death, why is the bow unfinished and unstrung and all but two of the arrows without heads and feathers, and those two broken?

Other early ideas about Ötzi are that he was an outlaw, a trader of flint, a shaman or a warrior. None of these has any solid basis, unless the pieces of bracket fungus he was carrying had medicinal or spiritual use for a shaman.

How Did He Die?
IN JULY 2001 Paul Gostner and Eduard Egarter Vigl of the Regional Hospital of Bolzano in Italy announced that x-rays had revealed an arrowhead in Ötzi's back under the left shoulder. If the arrowhead cut an artery, he died within a few hours; if not, then days may have elapsed before his demise. What needs to be done to settle this question is for the arrowhead to be removed so skillfully that precisely what damage it did can be revealed.

Recently, during a careful reexamination of the corpse, Egarter-Vigl and Andreas G. Nerlich of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich detected a 3.7-centimeter-long, deep stab wound in Ötzi's right palm extending to the lateral back. Histological analysis revealed that the injury happened between three and eight days before his death. At present, it is unknown if the two wounds resulted from the same attack, but if so, then it means that Ötzi survived being hit by the arrow for at least a few days.

In 2003 a claim that Ötzi had been involved in battle because of the presence of other peoples blood on his clothing was made by Tom Loy of the University of Queensland. So far it has been promulgated only at a press conference and on television. Until this work is reputably published, it cannot be assessed.

At What Time of Year?
INITIAL REPORTS PLACED the season of death in autumn. The presence of the sloe, which ripens in late summer, near the body and small pieces of grain in Ötzi's clothing, presumed to have lodged there during harvest threshing, formed the basis for these reports. But strong botanical evidence now indicates that Ötzi died in late spring or early summer. Studies by Oeggl of a tiny sample of food residue from Ötzi's colon have revealed the presence of the pollen of a small tree called hop hornbeam. Strikingly, much of that pollen has retained its cellular contents, which normally decay swiftly. This means that Ötzi might have ingested airborne pollen or drunk water containing freshly shed pollen shortly before he died. The hop hornbeam, which grows up to about 1,200 meters above sea level in the Schnalstal, flowers only in late spring and early summer.

As for the sloe found near his body, if Ötzi had been carrying sloes dried like prunes, the drying could have taken place some time before his journey. Small bits of grain also keep indefinitely, and a few scraps could have been carried inadvertently in his clothes for a long period.

What We Know
MORE THAN 10 YEARS after the discovery of the oldest, best-preserved human body, interpretations about who he was and how he came to rest in a rocky hollow high in the Alps have changed greatly. Just as important, we see that much careful research still needs to be done. The studies of the plant remains--the pollen, seeds, mosses and fungi found both inside and outside the body--have already disclosed a surprising number of Ötzi's secrets. We are aware of his omnivorous diet, his intimate knowledge of his surroundings, his southern domicile, his age and state of health, the season of his death, and something of his environment. Perhaps one of the most surprising reinterpretations is that tzi did not die on the boulder on which he was found. Rather he had floated there during one of the temporary thaws known to have occurred over the past 5,000 years. The positioning of the body, with the left arm stuck out awkwardly to the right and the right hand trapped under a stone, and the missing epidermis both suggest this conclusion. So does the fact that some of his belongings lay several meters distant, as if they had floated away from the body.

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