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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More than a decade after the Iceman’s discovery, Egarter is still trying to unravel the mysteries of the body on the tray. Along with its clothing and tools, the body was originally perceived as a kind of snapshot of the past, a specimen snatched from the Neolithic era to be analyzed and understood by the science of the present. Developing that snapshot has not proved as simple as was first assumed.


The body on the tray has a nickname, Otzi (it rhymes with “tootsie”), after an area of the Alps called the Otztal. In September 1991, a pair of hikers saw Otzi’s head and shoulders protruding from the melting ice in a pass known as the Tisenjoch, some 35 miles northwest of Bolzano. Otzi became a sensation. He made the cover of Time. He was the subject of several books and countless articles. In retrospect, many of the books and articles were partially mistaken.


Otzi began to befuddle people almost as soon as he was found. He was first thought to be just another Alpine fatality. Not realizing the age of their discovery, the rescue workers who came to the scene treated the body less than gently as they tried to pull it from the ice. A jackhammer tore chunks of flesh from Otzi’s left hip and damaged his thigh. The unfinished bow that he carried was broken into two pieces, and the frame of his backpack was ripped apart.


Only when an archaeologist from the University of Innsbruck, Dr. Konrad Spindler, saw the copper ax found with Otzi and estimated it to be 4,000 years old—a relic of the Neolithic age—did anyone begin to comprehend what an astonishing discovery had been made on the Tisenjoch. The Neolithic era was the transitional age when stone tools began to give way to metal and when agriculture was supplanting hunting and gathering. Until Otzi, archaeologists had been required to reconstruct Neolithic civilization from skeletal remains, flint tools and arrowheads, bits of pottery and the beginnings of metallurgy. The glacier’s damp, freezing temperature had preserved not only Otzi himself but also a trove of organic artifacts—clothing, wooden handles for tools and weapons, feathered arrows—never before seen by modern eyes. Some of the artifacts, however, were inadvertently damaged or destroyed as the body was pried from the ice.


“A lot was lost,” says Dr. Markus Egg, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany, who supervised the restoration of Otzi’s belongings. “For example, we don’t know how the backpack was worn—over the head or over the shoulder. And the quiver has no strap to indicate how it was carried.” Nevertheless, the study of the artifacts that did survive the extraction changed our understanding of the Neolithic world. The radiocarbon dating of Otzi’s ax blade forced a revision in the generally accepted date for the advent of copper smelting in the Alpine region. The feathers on two of his arrows showed that Neolithic man understood the ballistic principles that make an arrow rotate and fly more accurately. The embers that he carried, wrapped in maple leaves in a birch-bark container, suggested how Neolithic people transported fire from place to place.


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