Discovery of “Otzi the Iceman” (1991)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Brown-eyed, bearded, furrow faced, and tired: this is how Ötzi the Iceman might have looked, according to the latest reconstruction based on 20 years of research and investigations.

Realized by two Dutch experts, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, the model was produced with the latest in forensic mapping technology that uses three-dimensional images of the mummy's skull as well as infrared and tomographic images.

In 1991 two hikers discovered the frozen body of a Bronze Age man in glacier ice in the Similaun Pass in the Tyrol Alps between Austria and Italy. Modern archaeological and biological forensic techniques have provided a wealth of information about the life and death of this mummified 5,000-yearold person.

"Otzi the Iceman," "Similaun man," or just "Iceman" was discovered by chance. At first the hikers and authorities thought he was of very recent provenance, but this serendipitous find turned out to be the oldest complete human body ever found. Over the next few years, although now carefully preserved at the University of Innsbruck's Institute of Prehistory and Early History, the Iceman was examined by numerous international scientific experts, for twenty-minute intervals, each adding their expertise, building up as complete a picture of his life and death during the Bronze Age as evidence allowed.

The Iceman was discovered at an altitude of 3,200 meters, making him not only the oldest body to be found in Europe, but also the highest prehistoric find as well. His body had been air dried before being enveloped by the glacier about 5,300 years ago. He was between thirty and forty years old, based on dental evidence, and he was 156-160 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches) high. His brain, muscles, heart, liver, and digestive organs were in good condition, although his lungs were blackened-probably from smoke from open fires. Eight of his ribs had been fractured, some of these had healed and others were healing when he died. Tattoos were found on both sides of his lower spine and on his left calf and right ankle, comprising two-centimeter-long parallel vertical blue lines. On his inner knee there was a tattoo of a blue cross. Most of his fingernails, except one, had dropped off. Analysis of the remaining one indicated that he had used his hands to work, and that he had also been ill, based on reduced nail growth, at four, three-, and two-month intervals before his death. DNA analysis of his tissue confirmed that he was of central or northern European origin.

The Iceman died with a variety of clothing and other possessions made from organic materials that usually do not survive. In this case, because they had been frozen, they had been preserved. These were the everyday belongings of a man from the late Stone Age, which, until now, had been the subject of speculation and ethnographic analogy. The Iceman's clothing, comprising pouch, loincloth, and leggings, were made from eight different species of animal, were carefully stitched together with sinew, and had been repaired. His coat was deerskin, his hat was bearskin, his calfskin shoes were filled with grass for warmth, and he had an outer cloak of woven grass or reeds. This latter garment was similar to those recorded as being worn by local people as late as the nineteenth century. His clothing did not belong to someone of high social status-evidence that the Iceman was probably a farmer and a shepherd.

The Iceman's equipment is the earliest of its kind to be found in Europe and comprised over 70 artifacts. He carried a small, 9.5-centimeter copper ax, with a yew wood haft and leather binding. He also had an unfinished yew bow, with 14 arrows in a deerskin quiver, only two of which were ready to use, with flint tips and feather fletching. Other artifacts found with the Iceman included a flint knife with a wooden handle and grass string sheath; a hazel and larch wood frame of what was probably a rucksack; a lime wood handle with a sharpened antler tip inserted into one end; a retouching tool for flint scraping; two birch bark containers; a small marble disc on a leather thong; a piece of net; two types of fungus-one a tinder fungus, and the other, on a leather thong, may have been medicinal; other flints, such as a scrapers and awls, and one for making fires; and small quantities of antlers and bones for sharpening into points. Iceman had used a surprisingly large variety of different plants to manufacture his kit. Food evidence included a sloe (a kind of plum) berry, fragments of meat bone from the vertebrae of an ibex, and some cereal grains.

Radiocarbon dates confirmed that Iceman died 5,200 years ago (ca. 3200 BC) at the beginning of the European Bronze Age. The wide variety of wood and animal species used by the Iceman in his tool kit and clothing is impressive. So too are his techniques for working wood, flint, leather, and grasses. In fact, the archaeological evidence revealed more about the Bronze Age world than just the body. However, all of this evidence, and the evidence from his body, particularly his age, diet, diseases, and genetics, greatly enhanced our understanding of the early Bronze Age in Europe. And all of this from a chance discovery that could have disappeared back into the snow again without ever being found.

Further Reading Bortenschlager, S., and K. Oeggl, eds. 2000. The Iceman and his natural environment: Palaeo-botanical results. Vienna, Austria: Springer. Dubowski, M. 1998. Ice mummy: The discovery of a 5,000-year-old man. New York: Random House. Fowler, B. 2001. Iceman: Uncovering the life and times of a prehistoric man found in an alpine glacier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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