This week in science history - The discovery of Ötzi the Iceman

This week in science history saw, in 1991, the discovery of Ötzi the Iceman in the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy. His body is the oldest...
21 September 2009

Interview with 

Sarah Castor-Perry


This week in science history saw, in 1991, the discovery of Ötzi the Iceman in the Ötztal Alps between Austria and Italy. His body is the oldest naturally preserved mummy found in Europe and due to the excellent preservation, he has told us much about Copper Age people.

Otzi memorialOn the 19th of September 1991, Helmut and Erika Simon, a German couple, were hiking on the Schnalstal glacier when they made a gruesome discovery. After reporting what they assumed to be the body of a modern unfortunate tourist or rock climber, the authorities made several bungled attempts to remove the body from the ice. They broke the arm of the body, punctured its hip with a jackhammer and managed to rip the clothing around the body. Eventually they freed the body from the ice and took it to a local morgue. Six days after the discovery, an archaeologist was brought in, and after examining the clothing and artefacts, such as the axe, found with the body he concluded that it was at least four thousand years old. It was only after carbon-14 dating of the body by four different institutions that the age of the body was determined. Ötzi, as he was named, after the mountains in which he was found, was born and died some time between 3300 and 3100 BC.

To put this in perspective, this is between 500-800 years before the Great Pyramid at Giza was built and around 600 years before Stonehenge.

The period Otzi lived in is known as the Copper Age or Chalcolithic period, between the Neolithic (or Stone Age) and the Bronze Age from around 3500 to 1700 BC. Society was already relatively sophisticated in Europe at this time. People had been living in permanent settlements for at least a thousand years and had domesticated crops such as barley, flax and peas as well as animals like goats and sheep. With the start of copper mining and smelting, several changes occurred. Trade of copper ore and pure copper, as well as artefacts such as jewellery and weapons began, bringing wealth to the areas where the ore was mined. The appearance of sophisticated copper weapons suggests conflict between settlements over resources and the need to protect them. The domestication of horses around this time would have helped with transportation. Otzi himself had in his possession a copper axe, the most complete and best preserved example we have. It would have remained sharper for far longer than a flint axe, and Flint Axeso would have been very valuable. Among other items he carried birch bark containers to carry fire embers, a bow and quiver of arrows, a flint dagger and a net for catching birds and rabbits, all of which are incredibly well preserved given that they are over 5 thousand years old.

Since the discovery of his body, we have been able to learn a lot about Otzi. The truly remarkable thing about him is his level of preservation. The freezing temperatures and remote location up on the glacier meant that there was very little degradation of the body by bacteria and animals. His stomach contents was analysed and we know his last meal involved deer meat, vegetables and fruit and possibly some sort of bread. Pollen analysis, or palynology, has also proved a fascinating tool. The shape of pollen grains is unique to each family of plants - it is easy to tell grass pollen from birch or hawthorn pollen, and it tends to be very well preserved due to the robust cell walls in the pollen. The evidence from the pollen in Otzi's digestive tract has told us that Otzi lived in one of the local valleys, ate his last meal in a conifer forest, presumably on his way up the mountain and even that he died in spring.

How he died has been under debate ever since his discovery, but in 2001 it seemed that the debate might have been resolved. During an X-ray of the body, a flint arrow head was discovered embedded in his left shoulder. Further exploration of the wound showed it had severed a major artery and paralysed the left arm. There was also evidence of trauma to the skull and a brain haemorrhage, possibly from a fall after being shot with the arrow. Evidence of cuts and bruises on his hands and arms suggested a struggle in the lead up to his being shot, although the jury's still out on what this fight might have been over. It is now assumed that the arrow wound and/or the head injuries caused his death.

South Tyrol Archeology MuseumOtzi's body is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, along with his possessions. The discovery was hugely important for anthropologists studying that period in European human history as it's not a period where we have written records and so we have to rely on evidence from burial grounds and sites of villages to learn about the people and their way of life. Evidence from Otzi's stomach contents, his bones and his skin, combined with the sophisticated possessions and tools he had with him have allowed us to learn much more about the everyday lives of European people over 5000 years ago.


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