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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For a couple of years, Egarter confined himself to monitoring Otzi’s weight and the condition of his skin, looking for signs of decomposition. He did no research, assuming that all the major questions had been answered in Innsbruck. Then, in June 2001, zur Nedden called. In a joint effort with WakeForestUniversity in North Carolina, zur Nedden wanted to test a bit of the broken right rib to determine whether the break had occurred before or after Otzi’s death. He asked Egarter if he would remove a sliver of bone.

“I went to Innsbruck and asked zur Nedden to show me the position of the fracture, because I had to make coordinates for the extraction,” Egarter recalled. “He gave me one picture and said, ‘Here is the fracture, it shouldn’t be a problem. Open the chest here and take out the piece. It should only take 20 minutes.’ ”

Not satisfied with zur Nedden’s instructions, Egarter enlisted the aid of a Bolzano radiologist, Dr. Paul Gostner. Together they pulled Otzi out of his display vault and into the chilled anteroom, where Egarter felt it was safe to work for the hour or more the procedure might take without risk of defrosting the body. There they took a series of x-rays of Otzi’s chest cavity.

“The next day, Dr. Gostner came to me and said he was sorry, but he couldn’t see any rib fractures,” Egarter continued. “And he asked if I had any old x-rays of the body.” Egarter pulled some out and gave them to Gostner, who smiled and said, “OK, I am happy.” He was happy because the older pictures proved that his new pictures were accurate, not marred by some error. Like the new pictures, the old x-rays showed a dense, triangular mass in Otzi’s left shoulder. It was, Gostner estimated, five times as dense as bone. It was stone. It looked like an arrowhead. He found it hard to believe that the Innsbruck team could have missed it.

That night, Egarter and Gostner went to the museum and removed the body from its display vault. They saw a darkspot under the left shoulder blade. With his hands, Egarter defrosted the icy glaze that normally covers the body’s skin. He found a wound, small but unmistakable, puncturing the skin. He could see that something had created a small channel going through the skin and muscles toward the bone.

This confirmed what the x-rays suggested—that Otzi had been shot in the back. (Presumably, before dying, he had reached back and yanked the arrow shaft from his body. It has not been recovered.) When Egarter reported his discovery, the Austrians went back to their x-rays and CAT scans and found the arrowhead as well. They even made a plastic model of it. “We missed the arrowhead,” zur Nedden said in a recent interview. In the x-rays and CAT scans they had made, he explained, “we saw there was a structure. It was very dense and we said, ‘Later we’ll look at what this structure means.’ But we forgot to do it, because we found lots of other things—fractures, calcifications, arthritis and so on.”

But they had not, according to Egarter, actually found a rib fracture. The x-rays Gostner and Egarter made showed that what zur Nedden read as a fracture was likely the result of compression, presumably from the weight of snow and ice pressing on the body. In the pictures made in Innsbruck, Egarter explained, Otzi’s sixth and seventh ribs on the right side are lying over each other. “This overlapping can give the image of a rib fracture,” he said. “It looks like one rib that’s been fractured instead of two ribs overlapping. Dr. Gostner made pictures from different angles. If you look from this angle”—he pointed to a spot about six inches under his own armpit—“you can see that you have two ribs and not a fracture.”

Nor were those the last changes that the pathologist from Bolzano would make to the scientific record on Otzi. Soon thereafter, Brando Quilici, a filmmaker from Rome who is working on his second film about Otzi for the Discovery Channel (scheduled to air next fall), interviewed Alois Pirpamer, a mountain guide from Vent, on the Austrian side of the Alps, who assisted in the recovery of the body. He told Quilici that when he first saw Otzi, he thought he saw an object clenched in Otzi’s right hand, an object that had lodged between two rocks and contributed to the difficulty of the extraction. When the body was finally extricated, film made at the time showed that a rescue worker reached into the slush, removed an artifact and tossed it off to one side. Fortunately, the cameraman zoomed in on the discarded object, which was retrieved and taken to Innsbruck, along with the body and other artifacts. Quilici tracked down that original film footage, which revealed that the “discarded” artifact was in fact a dagger with a flint blade and a wooden handle.

Early in 2002, Egarter, alerted by Quilici, decided to investigate further. He defrosted Otzi’s right hand and examined it under a microscope. He found a small cut running from the palm of the right hand, just below the index finger, over to the top side of the hand. It was, in total, about 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches) long. When he probed, he found he could gently push a scalpel blade to a depth of five or six millimeters. He saw discoloration along the edges of the cut, which suggested to him that it was not made during the extraction of the body. It had been made while Otzi’s blood still flowed, before he died. “I think that the wound was very painful,” Egarter says. “Two fingers are nearly immobilized.”

This wound, too, had not been noticed in Austria. Egarter asked Gostner to make close-up x-rays of the body’s right hand. Gostner found two bone lesions—one under the cut and a second on the right wrist. They were consistent with the sort of lesion that a woodworker might suffer if he cut his hand on the blade of a saw. This suggested that Otzi might have sustained the wound fending off an attacker’s blade.

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