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Hear the Recreated Voice of Ötzi the Iceman

Using CT scans of the Neolithic man’s vocal tract, Italian researchers have approximated the way he pronounced his vowels

A reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. (OetziTheIceman /Flickr CC)
smithsonian.com

Since German tourists discovered Ötzi the Iceman’s mummified corpse while hiking in the Alps in South Tyrol, Italy, 25 years ago, he’s become one of the most studied people ever to live on earth. Researchers have sussed out what he ate, examined his DNA, studied his tattoos, his health history, determined that he was likely murdered, reconstructed his face and body and even figured out what type of leather he made his clothes and equipment out of.

Now scientists have put a voice to the face. A team of researchers in Italy announced at a conference recently that they have succeeded in approximating Ötzi’s voice, or at least the tone of it. According to Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News, Rolando Füstös, chief of the ENT department at Bolzano General Hospital, the city which is home to Ötzi and the museum dedicated to him, used a CT scan to measure the iceman’s vocal tract and synthesized the sounds it would have made.

As Michael Day points out at The Independent, Ötzi did not make the project easy. Because the mummy is so fragile, the team was unable to use a more detailed MRI scanner because it was too dangerous to move the body. The second difficulty was Ötzi’s final resting position. The mummy has an arm covering his throat, and his tongue bone was partially absorbed and out of place.

Lorenzi reports the team used special software that allowed them to reposition the mummy virtually and reconstruct the bone that supports the tongue. The team then used mathematical models and software to recreate the sound produced by Ötzi’s vocal tract.

The sound produced is not Ötzi’s true voice since the researchers do not know the tension of his vocal cords or the effects the now-missing soft-tissues in his vocal tract would have produced.

“Obviously we don’t know what language he spoke back then, but we will, I think, be able to reproduce the colour or timbre of his vowel sounds and show how they might be different in the way that Sicilians or people from London, say, pronounce the letter ‘a’ differently,” Dr Füstös told Day when the start of the project was announced.

The final synthesized vowel sounds produced by the vocal tract are between 100 and 150 Hz, which is typical for a modern male human. The sound of Ötzi’s vowels, released in a video, sound rough and gravelly, like a heavy smoker, though tobacco didn’t make it to Eurasia until some 3,800 years after Ötzi's death.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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