Meet Otzi, the Iceman!

Last Updated 17 November 2011, 17:43 IST
Meet Otzi, the Iceman!

Helmut and Erika Simon were walking in the Alps in the Similaun glacier area (the border between Austria and Italy). They turned off the main walking path into a rocky gully full of glacier ice melt. From a distance, they noticed something brown and leathery lying in the snow. As they came closer, they saw to their horror that it was a human corpse lying face down in the hard ice! It was buried from waist down. The shocked trekkers assumed it was the body of someone who had perished in a recent mountaineering accident. They took photographs and rushed to inform the authorities.

Within days, forensic scientists from Austria went to work. As they hacked and sawed at the solid ice to recover the body, they realised that they were dealing with something that was definitely not ‘modern’.

Bits of leather, string, animal hide and clumps of hay lay scattered about the body. Then they found a beautiful copper axe-head which looked like something from a museum. They filmed everything they did before they put the mummy in a coffin and hauled it off to the Forensic Institute in Innsbruck, Austria.


Archaeologists arrived on the scene a few days later to discover an archaeological bonanza in the melting ice! Leather and hide fragments, part of a broken longbow, a flint dagger mounted on a wooden handle, an almost intact bearskin cap. They even recovered pieces of skin and muscle fibres and a fingernail!

Meanwhile, in Innsbruck, an archaeologist examined the corpse and the copper axe-head and declared them to be at least 4,000 years old!

Meet Otzi

The Iceman, or Otzi (from the Otztal Alps where he was found) as he was now popularly known, had lived more than 5,000 years ago. He had died and been buried almost immediately in snow. He had lain undisturbed for centuries till finally, in the 20th century, the melting ice had revealed his preservedbody. Otzi is a unique natural, ‘wet’ mummy.
As this sensational news took the world by storm, there was a dispute as to whether the Iceman had been found on the Italian or Austrian side of the border. Finally, the Italians laid claim to Otzi. Meanwhile a full range of investigations continued in Austria.

 Biologists, pathologists, forensic scientists, anthropologists, doctors…a whole range of researchers looked into every tiny part of Otzi. They examined his DNA, his tooth enamel, his hair, his stomach contents; they conducted CAT scans, endoscopies and C-14 dating tests.

A picture began to emerge of the life and times of Otzi, the Neolithic Man.
Otzi was about 165 cm tall, weighed about 50 kg and was between 40 and 50 years old when he died. That would have made him a senior citizen in those harsh days when people had very short life spans. Analysis of the pollen found on him and the wooden axe handles he was carrying led to the conclusion that he belonged to somewhere south of the Alps. He must have been quite a striking figure in his leather leggings, loin cloth, belted knee-length hide coat and a beautiful bear-skin hat. He wore surprisingly well-crafted shoes (the right shoe still on his foot) and probably a thick cloak made of woven grass.

The hunter-gatherer

Otzi was obviously used to being away from home for long periods of time. He carried a kit of equipment that made him self-sufficient. In his belt pouch, he carried a sharp edged bone tool, flint (a kind of stone) flakes and tinder fungus. The flint flakes were probably to make weapons and the tinder fungus was to enable him to start fires easily. The sharp bone tool was like a needle carried to mend his clothes.

Otzi also carried containers made of birch bark; one to carry food (like a tiffin carrier) and one for embers from his previous fire wrapped in green maple leaf. He would have to simply blow on these embers to re-start a campfire at night.

To defend himself and to hunt he carried a huge yew wood bow with a quiver of 14 arrows and a flint dagger with a wooden handle in its own bark fibre sheath. The dagger was probably in his hand when he died since his hand appeared to be clasping something.

The most notable object Otzi carried was the copper axe. It is one of the earliest examples of metal working. Copper smelting had just begun in that area around 3300BCE. The axe would have been rare and expensive.

From an examination of his stomach contents, experts concluded that Otzi had eaten a meal of deer meat, some grain and vegetables about 6 hours before his death.
Along Otzi’s backbone, knees and ankles were a series of short, parallel vertical lines that looked like tattoos. They were punched with a sharp object and had powdered charcoal rubbed into them. Otzi’s bones showed that he suffered from joint pains. He had a number of healed fractures and wounds.

Doctors believe that these ‘tattoos’ were in fact, an early form of acupuncture to deal with pain.  He also suffered from intestinal worms for which he carried his own first-aid kit: birch fungus in his belt pouch; this is known to be an antibiotic of sorts and to be able to deal with stomach aches!

Small wound, big secret

There has been much speculation on how Otzi died and came to be buried in the glacier. Ten years after he was found, scientists found a wound that they hadn’t noticed before. There was a small tear in his left shoulder with the remains of a flint arrowhead still in it. The arrowhead had pierced a major blood vessel and Otzi had probably bled to death. Wounds and abrasions on his hands indicate that he was involved in a hand-to- hand combat before he died.

This extraordinary story is not over yet. Otzi is now housed in a humidity controlled capsule in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. The museum has a life-size representation of Otzi, complete with his clothes and tools. Research continues as more and more facts come to light about life in Neolithic Europe.

Put on your thinking caps

*Otzi had been lying in the snow for thousands of years. Find out some of the major events that could have taken place around him over the centuries. Ex. Alexander the Great hadn’t even been thought of and there was no sign of Hannibal or the Roman Empire.

* Make a time line of your favourite events in history. How many years after Otzi did they happen?

(Published 17 November 2011, 17:22 IST)

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