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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Egarter is still not sure how this new evidence fits into a comprehensive theory that would explain how Otzi came to die where he did. He hopes to investigate further. He would like to do an endoscopic examination of Otzi’s chest cavity. Then he would like to get permission from the scientific committee of the museum that controls research on Otzi to defrost the body and remove the arrowhead. Doing that would enable him to determine whether the arrow severed any nerves, arteries or veins. Severed arteries would indicate that Otzi died of blood loss shortly after the arrow hit him.If veins were damaged, he might have lasted considerably longer before the loss of blood killed him. If no blood vessels were damaged, he might have survived the wound for several days. While further tests await, Egarter continues to look for other clues. “It was my work, my responsibility at first,” he said. “But it has become my hobby.” I had the sense that if his command of English were more certain, Egarter would have used the word “passion” instead of “hobby.”

I tagged along with Egarter, mountain guide Pirpamer and Quilici one day last summer when they helicoptered up to the Tisenjoch to have a look around. Clouds wafting down from the mountain above hid the sun, melding with the snow and ice that covered much of the ground. Rocks that in sunlight glint with the faint golden color of pyrite looked black and foreboding. It was cold; we could see our exhalations in front of us as we hiked through the snow toward the place where Otzi was discovered.

Egarter, dressed in a parka, red cap, jeans and gaiters, made observations as he walked. “Aman would burn a thousand calories an hour in conditions like this,” he said, looking around. He scuffed his feet in the snow, trying to get a sense of the footing Otzi had for his final steps. He looked at the mist, mist in which a man could, perhaps, disappear.

At 65, Pirpamer still has the light, sure step of an experienced mountain guide, though his hair and beard are as white as the flowers of the mountain avens that grow on the slopes below. He led the way to a stone obelisk that marks the site of the discovery. The obelisk’s precise placement was dictated primarily by the desire to make it visible to tourists in the valley below. The actual site of the find is about 75 yards away, marked by a splotch of red paint on a boulder.

It was easy to speculate about how Otzi had come to this place and died. Perhaps he was a shepherd returning to a village in the valley below from winter pastures. Maybe another village had raided his home. Maybe another man had taken his wife during his absence. He could have encountered a battle. He could have lost his bow and arrows and fled with only his dagger and copper ax. He might have stopped somewhere to cut another bow and new arrows. His enemies might have pursued him, forcing him to seek refuge higher up, in summer pastures.

As he fled upward through forests of larch and pine, he might have sipped water from one of the many rivulets flowing from the glacier above as he passed beyond the tree line, then beyond the vegetation line, where the grass and wildflowers disappear. Somewhere he would have been shot in the back, presumably from below, because the entry wound is beneath the position of the arrowhead.

But no scenario answers all the questions raised by the evidence. If someone shot and killed him, why did the assailant leave a valuable ax with the body? If Otzi had a disabling cut in his right hand, why was he clutching his dagger in it? Egarter does not pretend to know. “My only hypothesis,” he tells me later, “is that for whatever reason, Otzi thought he would be safer on the mountain than he was in the valley.”

It may be that Egarter will unravel some of this mystery with new tests. The investigation of the man in the ice has revealed a great deal about the Neolithic era. But it has also, unexpectedly, revealed the fallibility of our own science. There are many things about Otzi, I suspect, that we are fated never to know.

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