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See Inside November 2010

The Iceman's Last Stand

The story of a famous corpse gets a surprising twist



Courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (www.iceman.it)

It is one of the most evocative ancient corpses ever discovered: a 46-year-old man with an arrow wound in his left shoulder, whose body and belongings came to rest in a high mountain pass some 5,000 years ago. Ever since hikers first spotted the remains of Ötzi the Iceman, as he is known, emerging from the melting ice in the Ötztal Alps near the Austrian-Italian border in 1991, scientists have been working to determine how he died and what he was doing in such a remote spot. The leading theory holds that he had fled there and froze to death after being shot with a bow and arrow during a skirmish with members of a rival tribe. A new study challenges this disaster scenario and suggests instead that the Iceman died in a fight in the valley below and was later transported to the lofty locale for a grand ceremonial send-off.

A team of Italian and American researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing the distribution of the Iceman’s personal effects, which include a backpack and other items traditionally construed as mountaineering equipment. They reasoned that if he died in or near the place where he was found and had been carrying his possessions when he died, then the melting and freezing cycles should have distributed the artifacts in a random pattern all around his body. In fact, the distribution pattern they found showed two distinct clusters of artifacts, one near some stone slabs, which they interpret as the remnants of a burial platform, and another in the nearby depression where the hikers found the Iceman’s body. The study suggests that his body and bulky accoutrements were deposited precisely on the small stone platform and later borne by flowing water to the depression. Furthermore, the unfinished weapons and grass mat that accompanied the Iceman are better explained as grave goods and a funeral shroud than as mountaineering gear. Earlier pollen analyses also indicated a delay between the time of death and burial. Taking this evidence together, the investigators propose that the Iceman passed away at low altitude in the spring and that his clansmen packed his body in ice until late summer, when they carried him up the mountain for a final farewell. Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnology in Rome and his colleagues described the results of their study in the journal Antiquity.

Not everyone is so sure about these conclusions. Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck in Austria notes that the team has not supplied convincing evidence that the stone slabs represent a burial platform and that subsequent pollen tests have failed to uphold the original signal indicating a late summer burial. He agrees that a ritual of some kind would explain the presence of unfinished artifacts at the site but maintains that the disaster theory remains the best explanation. Still, he remarks, the new study is stimulating because it is the first to discuss the burial hypothesis extensively.

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