Testimony from the Iceman

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)


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.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus