Historically Speaking: Discovery of Ötzi the Iceman
Today, September 19th, marks the 21st anniversary of a monumental discovery in the field of archaeology: the accidental uncovering of a 5,300 year-old, naturally preserved mummy in the Ötztal Alps, dubbed Ötzi the Iceman.
Ötzi was found on this day in 1991 by two German tourists, who believed that the body was that of a recently deceased mountaineer due to how well it had been preserved by the cold. After excavation on September 22nd and transport to the University of Innsbruck, it was discovered that the body was in fact primeval in origin. As Ötzi died from an arrow shot in his back, scientists have conjectured that he was possibly killed by a member of a rival tribe, or may have even been murdered.
Since the discovery, Ötzi’s pristine state of natural mummification has provided archaeologists with a fount of knowledge in better understanding the lives of European cavemen, as well as allowing scientists to test new ways of analyzing ancient remains. Numerous, highly-refined examinations of Ötzi has not only revealed basic facts about him, such as his height (5’5″) and probable age (apprx. 45 years-old at death), but also a large amount of information regarding how he might have lived.
Over the years, archaeologists have found that Ötzi had Lyme disease, a stomach parasite and a bad heart, and had been ill multiple times in the month’s prior to his death. As shown by large amounts of arsenic and copper particles found in his hair indicate that he was likely a coppersmith, or possibly a shepherd, due to the amount of strain on his leg muscles and bones that indicate an uncharacteristically high amount of mobility for a man of that time period. Information regarding his diet has also been found by exhuming his stomach, showing that his last meal was venison, ibex, and herb bread, as well as food found in his belongings which indicate a diet of breads made from numerous types of grains.
Analysis of his clothes and belongings also show that the society in which he lived was more sophisticated than initially suspected, as no clothing from that time period had ever been found previously. Many of his clothing items had been carefully sewn together from differnt animal skins with sinew, and even possessed a belt with a pouch to carry a supply of tools. His shoes in particular were highly refined in design, as reconstructed replicas of them has shown them to be waterproof snowshoes, indicating the presence of a dedicated cobbler within his tribe.
More astonishingly, Ötzi’s entire genome has been reconstructed, and show that he possessed a large degree of neanderthal ancestry, which support the theory of intermarriage between different species within the homo genus. Even the location of Ötzi’s home is now known to have originally been near the present-day village of Feldthurns, Italy, before moving approximately 50 kilometers north to a region of valleys, following analysis of pollen, dust and the composition of his tooth enamel.
Some of the most recent analysis of Ötzi was conducted in May of this year, when scientists used an atomic microscope to discover that Ötzi still had intact blood cells, which is the oldest blood sample ever retrieved. Scientists believe that this discovery will have large implications for fields outside of archaelogy as well, such as in forensics.
“Forensic scientists today have trouble telling if crime scene blood is days or months old, but by studying the elasticity of 5,000-year-old blood we hope to be able to make a real contribution to the understanding of blood aging,” Albert Zink, of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi is kept.
Ötzi shows just how important a single body can be in allowing archaeologists to uncover how our ancestors lived in the time before written history and records, and that new information from one specimen can still be found even 21 years after its initial discovery as technology allows us to use new methods of examination. While finds like Ötzi may not happen every day, it’s only a matter of time until another mummy like him is found, thus our understanding of how our ancestors once lived will only continue to accelerate.
To learn more about Ötzi, here is a video of a lecture by Dr. Thomas Tartaron, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania from February of 2012:
Tags: historically speaking