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

But we do not know and may never know what reason Ötzi had for being at a great altitude in the Alps. And we may never understand exactly how he died. An autopsy would be too destructive. In the absence of this kind of proof, we cannot completely exclude the possibility that perhaps Ötzi died somewhere else and was carried at some point to the hollow where the hikers found him 5,000 years later.

Because of near-instantaneous preservation by freezing, bodies that melt from glaciers, such as Ötzi and Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchí, are outstanding sources of scientific and cultural information about humankind from periods long ago.

Such corpses show us in the most dramatic fashion how well our ancestors knew their environments. They can tell us much about the precise moments of death in ways that other archaeological remains, such as burials, cannot, certainly not in such comprehensive ways: how the people looked, how they dressed, how they were equipped, how healthy they were, what they had just eaten, as well as their long-term diets and, by detailed analyses of gut contents, where they had traveled during their last few days.

With glaciers the world over in retreat, more ancient bodies may well be discovered, but few, if any, can be expected to be as old and intact as Ötzi. Nevertheless, all such corpses, even if only centuries rather than millennia old, should be investigated scientifically, especially if ingested food still remains in their alimentary tracts.

Jim Dickson, Klaus Oeggl and Linda Handley share an interest in the plants that the Tyrolean Iceman may have used in his daily life. Dickson, professor of archaeobotany and plant systematics at the University of Glasgow, is recipient of the Neill Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He has written more than 150 papers and five books, including Plants and People in Ancient Scotland (Tempus Publishing, 2000), which he co-authored with his late wife, Camilla. Oeggl is professor of botany at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. He is an expert in archaeobotany and co-editor of the book The Iceman and His Natural Environment (Springer-Verlag, 2000). Handley, an ecophysiologist at the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Invergowrie, near Dundee, specializes in the study of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in plants and soils.

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