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.


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