Testimony from the Iceman

The 5,000-plus-year-old Neolithic man discovered a decade ago is telling scientists how he lived and died

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There had been an assumption, of course, that people of that era wore clothing of some sort. But, save for some jewelry and buttons, there had been no examples until Otzi. From him, archaeologists learned that Neolithic people in central Europe had leggings to protect them from the cold. But they evidently had few woven textiles; all of Otzi’s clothing came from animal hides. Despite its primitive appearance, his gear was functional. He had shoes made of leather and bast (plant fiber), stuffed with grass for insulation. When researchers made copies of the shoes, they found them quite practical for hiking in the snow. “Everything we know about clothing from the Neolithic age in Europe is from him,” Egg says. “There is nothing to compare. He is alone.”

Scientists who worked on the Otzi project produced some elegant results with just specks of evidence. Some researchers, looking at the structure of the body’s damaged thighbone, analyzed the secondary osteons—concentric arrangements of bone matrix that increase as a person ages—and estimated that Otzi was in his 40s when he died.

Dr. Klaus Oeggl of the Institute of Botany in Innsbruck received about 40 milligrams of material from Otzi’s colon. Laboriously analyzing every milligram, Oeggl found remnants of cooked bread made from einkorn, a primitive variety of wheat. This suggested that Otzi’s society had the beginnings of agriculture. Oeggl also found pollen from a plant called the hop hornbeam. Examining it carefully, he found that the cell content within the pollen’s outer shell was intact. This told him that the pollen was fresh, since the inner cellular material of pollen from the hop hornbeam decays within a few days or weeks of falling to the ground. From this, Oeggl deduced that Otzi had died in late spring, when the plant sheds its pollen. He also determined that Otzi came from a village on the Italian side of the Tisenjoch, since analysis of sediment layers showed that the hop hornbeam did not grow on the north, or Austrian, side in Otzi’s time.

The research on the clothing, the tools and the intestinal contents, however, yielded more information than did research on the state of the body and the cause of Otzi’s death. Dr. Werner Platzer, chief of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Innsbruck, was the man initially in charge of conserving the body. His first priority was to make certain it did not decay. Platzer surmised that the best way would be to try to replicate the conditions within the snow and ice of the Tisenjoch. He kept the body packed in crushed ice, stored in a refrigerated vault, and allowed examinations infrequently and for only 30 minutes at a time.

There was sufficient evidence to indicate that the body was male, although in one of their first publications on Otzi, the Austrian group said the genitals seemed to be missing. They speculated that they might have been torn off during the extraction from the ice. This prompted a German journalist to publish a book claiming that the entire discovery was a fraud and that Otzi was nothing more than a castrated Egyptian mummy, planted in the mountains to stimulate tourism. Only when that book was published in 1993 did the Innsbruck scientists pull the body from the vault, unwrap it and take a closer look. When they did, they discovered that contrary to their earlier supposition, Otzi’s genitals were intact.

The major question was how he came to die 10,000 feet up in the Alps. Much of the responsibility for answering it fell to a team of specialists under the supervision of Dr. Dieter zur Nedden, chief of one of the radiology departments at the University of Innsbruck. Zur Nedden scanned the body five times during the six years it was in Innsbruck. The first pictures were made with conventional x-rays. Then there were digital x-rays. There were a total of three examinations with computer tomography. One apparatus even made three-dimensional plastic models of the skull and organs. Zur Nedden worked with a select, international team of experts to assess the findings. They found signs of arteriosclerosis, a possible stroke and osteoarthritis, and they determined that Otzi had suffered a serious injury—broken ribs on his right side. But they could not be certain whether the ribs had been broken before Otzi’s death or after, when pressure from the snow and ice might have crushed them.

The broken ribs figured prominently in the death scenario published in 1993 by Spindler, the chief archaeologist on the Innsbruck research team. In his best-selling The Man in the Ice, Spindler hypothesized that Otzi had been involved in some catastrophic event, most likely a battle. His ribs had been broken. He fled the scene, leaving his bow and arrows behind, which forced him to start work on a new bow. But the pain of the rib injury was too great to bear at extreme altitudes. Exhausted, he lay down and died.

No one had disproved that theory when the body was brought to Italy in 1998. Though the first police and rescue workers to respond to the news of a body in the ice were Austrian and they had taken it to Innsbruck, a survey made two weeks after the discovery determined that Otzi had actually been found in Italy, about 100 yards from the Austrian border. Italy quickly claimed permanent custody, but did not assume it until six years later, when the specially designed refrigerated vault had been installed in the old bank building in Bolzano (renamed the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology), after repeated testing of the refrigeration technique on another mummified body.

Otzi’s transfer was ostensibly friendly, primarily because the ties between Austria and Italy’s South Tirol are old and strong. Even today, about 70 percent of the province’s population is of German origin. It enjoys a degree of autonomy within Italy, and all of the towns and highway signs have names in both Italian and German. But there was an undercurrent of tension to the transfer, something Egarter expressed in a conversation before he showed Otzi to me. “Sometimes the Austrians believe that the South Tiroleans are a small country living on tourism and agriculture and they are a little bit—not stupid, but not sophisticated like the university people in Innsbruck,” he said. “People here in South Tirol sometimes have an inferiority complex.”

Sophisticated or not, the South Tiroleans found themselves responsible for one of the world’s archaeological treasures. Egarter was cast in a central role, given the task of preserving the body. He had no credentials in archaeology. His career had been spent managing a staff of 65 people in the local hospital’s pathology department, analyzing tissue samples sent by other doctors and doing autopsies. He might, for instance, be asked by an insurance company to determine whether a driver pulled from a car wreck had died from the collision or had perhaps had a heart attack that led to the crash. “Dr. Bruno Hosp, the minister of culture for South Tirol, called me in and told me they had been looking for a conservator for Otzi in South Tirol and had become convinced that I was the man who had the most to do with death,” Egarter said, explaining his appointment. 

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