In 1991, a group of hikers exploring the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border came across the mummified corpse of a person half-entombed in ice. Because the find was at an elevation of 10,530 feet, the group initially suspected that the remains belonged to a lost mountaineer. Local officials brought in to examine the scene further floated the possibility that it was the body of an Italian solider lost during one of the World Wars.
Only after archaeologists had a chance to examine Otzi, so-named for the mountain range where he was discovered, did the stunning truth of his age come to light. Using radiocarbon dating, scientists determined that he had perished in the Alps an astounding 5,300 years earlier. The preservation from the ice pocket he fell into was so thorough that his brain, internal organs, penis, pubic hair and one of his eyeballs were all completely intact.
In the time since his discovery, Otzi has become a veritable celebrity of the scientific world — providing insights and blowing away assumptions about the ancient world. Below are just a few of the secrets researchers have uncovered from the Iceman, his possessions and the circumstances surrounding his unusual death.
Scientists analyzing bone and tissue samples from Otzi discovered that he likely died somewhere between 3239-3107 B.C. at the age of 45. This period of time is categorized as the Late Neolithic, notable for such inventions as the wheel, the rise of agriculture, mathematics and astronomy.
In 2018, researchers published a detailed analysis of the tools discovered alongside Otzi's body. A dagger, two arrowheads, endscraper, borer, small flake and antler retoucher were made from a dark, opaque, silica-based rock called chert or related to the shaping of chert. Through CT analysis and use-wear analysis, researchers determined that Otzi did not have access to lots of chert, and therefore, most of his tools were worn down and resharpened over time instead of being replaced.
"Evidently Ötzi had not had any access to chert for quite some time, which must have been problematic during his last hectic days, preventing him from repairing and integrating his weapons, in particular his arrows. Freshly modified blade tools without any wear suggest planned work which he never carried out, possibly prevented by the events which made him return to the mountains where he was killed by a Southern Alpine archer," the study notes.
The style and materials used to make his tools come from at least three different areas in the Southalpine region and are reflective of northern Italian and Swiss Horgen culture, which shows he interacted with other transalpine people.
Owing to the amazing preservative properties of ice, researchers were able to analyze a portion of Otzi's stomach and lower intestine to reveal the last meals he ate before his death. Roughly eight hours before the end, they discovered that he had consumed a meal of einkorn grain and a mix of cooked red deer and goat meat. A study of the stomach in 2011 showed that two hours before death, he ate another meal of ibex, a wild goat and yet more grains. Another study conducted in 2018 revealed he had a high proportion of fat in his diet that was supplemented with fresh and dried wild meat, cereals and toxic bracken (ferns).
Mixed in with these foodstuffs was also an important clue as to the time of year Otzi perished. Researchers had long theorized that he had been caught in a late summer storm in the mountains, but the discovery of pollen from the hop hornbeam tree changed everything. The species, which likely grew in the valley below Otzi's final resting place, only blooms between March and June.
Found on the remains of Otzi's clothing were two pieces of birch fungus threaded onto narrow strips of hide. The fungus, which includes both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial compounds, was highly valued for its medicinal properties. It's also highly toxic to whipworms, a parasite discovered by researchers in Otzi's colon. According to Science Know How, the birch fungus when consumed by Otzi would have "killed at least some of the intestinal parasites and purged his bowels of their eggs."
It's regarded by scientists as the oldest medicine kit ever discovered.
Until the discovery of Otzi and his beautifully-preserved copper axe, it was assumed that humanity in 3500 B.C. had not yet mastered the technology to forge such tools. Made from a yew tree and containing a 9.5 centimeter blade of almost pure copper, the axe was likely both a weapon and a tool for felling trees. As you can see in the video above by survivalist Shawn Woods, crafting such a tool is not easy. As many researchers have theorized, it was likely a rare — and highly valued item — to have in the late Neolithic.
While scientists aren't sure of the exact circumstances surrounding Otzi's death, the physical evidence left behind paints a violent conclusion. Researchers looking at wounds on his body discovered deep cuts on his hand that likely occurred from combat either hours or days before his death. They also discovered a flint arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder; a wound so severe that it severed a major artery and caused bleed-out within a matter of minutes. Finally, in 2013, researchers studying a CAT scan of Otzi's cerebrum found evidence of a fatal blow to the back of the head. They aren't sure if this wound was caused by a fall after being hit with the arrow or was from a separate incident.
In 2015, researchers conducted a thorough record of Otzi's tattoos using new imaging technology and discovered 61 distinctive markings. Because the markings, likely created by cutting the skin and rubbing in charcoal, are concentrated around joints and the lower back, it's been theorized that they may have been therapeutic. In fact, many believe Otzi's markings are evidence for an early form of acupuncture.
One clue as to why the Iceman sought out acupuncture treatments for joint paint? He likely had the world's earliest known infection of Lyme disease.
A full DNA analysis of a sample of Otzi's hip bone in 2012 revealed genetic material from the bacterium responsible from Lyme disease. Transmitted by infected ticks, the disease can cause recurring joint pain, headaches and fatigue. The DNA scan also revealed that he had brown eyes, brown hair, was lactose intolerant and had type-O blood.
Researchers recently published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports detailing where the various garments found on Otzi came from. These included a hat made from a brown bear, shoelaces of cow leather, leggings from goat hide, and a coat made from a mixture of sheep and goat hides. The style and functionality of the various garments show that Otzi was potentially either a farmer or an animal herder. Because the garment showed signs of patchwork and repair, he may have also been skilled as an "opportunistic tailor."
“The Copper Age neolithic style of making leather was very primitive, clothing would have decomposed and degraded quite quickly under normal circumstances," Niall O’Sullivan, first author of the research from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, told the Guardian. “So he had to rapidly change his clothes and he was probably constantly renewing the clothes and augmenting it so that bits didn’t fall apart."
When Otzi collapsed more than 5,000 year ago, his body fell into a small gully surrounded by large rocks. This depression, which runs perpendicular to the Niederjoch Glacier, likely filled with snow immediately after his death, preserving the body and artifacts from predators and thieves. As the glacier moved over the gully, the large rocks prevented its grinding base from disturbing Otzi, allowing him to ride out the centuries entombed in solid ice.
More than 5,000 years after his death, the descendants of Otzi are still very much alive. Researchers studying the Iceman's DNA discovered a rare Y-chromosome mutation known as G-L91. When they compared this result with almost 4,000 samples of blood donated by people living in Austria, they found 19 men with the same mutation living not far from where Otzi was discovered.
“These men and the Iceman had the same ancestors," said forensic scientist Walther Parson in a 2013 announcement to the Austrian Press Agency. The researchers, suspecting that many more people share ancestry with the Iceman, will next expand their search to blood donors living in Italy and Switzerland.
Want to experience for yourself the place where Otzi rested for over 50 centuries? The Val Senales tourism office offers every Tuesday a one-day guided tour to the alpine slope where the Iceman was discovered. No alpine mountaineering experience — or goat hide leggings — necessary.