We know quite a bit about Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,300-year-old individual whose remarkably well-preserved remains were found in the Italian Alps in 1991. We know that Ötzi was murdered; he was shot with an arrow that went through his armpit and into his subclavian artery. We know that he was covered in tattoos, that he had sharpened his tools shortly before he was killed, that he had a gravelly voice, that he was lactose intolerant. And now, as Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, researchers have pieced together a picture of what Ötzi ate just before he died: a hearty, fatty meal.
In a study published recently in Current Biology, researchers explain how they used microscopic techniques to analyze the contents of Ötzi’s stomach; the team was comprised of experts in the studies of genetic material, fats, protein and metabolism.
Scientists have only recently been able to access the Iceman’s stomach; for many years after the discovery of his body, researchers couldn’t find it. In 2009, however, CT scans revealed that Ötzi’s stomach had been pushed upwards as his body mummified. Further investigations revealed that his stomach's contents were very well preserved. In the new study, researchers were able to determine that shortly before he was killed, Ötzi chowed down on cooked grains and cured meat.
The recent study digs further into the contents of Ötzi’s belly; according to a statement announcing the new research, it is the “first in-depth analysis of the Iceman's stomach contents.” The team was able to identify 167 animal and plant proteins in Ötzi’s stomach, and they also determined the components of his last meal: cereals made from einkorn wheat, along with red deer and ibex meat. Notably, Ötzi had also eaten a hefty serving of ibex fat; according to George Dvorsky of Gizmodo, 46 percent of his stomach contents was made up of animal fat residues.
The Iceman’s greasy last supper "totally makes sense,” Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Italy and a study co-author, says in the statement. Because he lived in a cold, high-Alpine region, Ötzi would have needed to maintain high energy and nutrient supplies to avoid rapid energy loss and starvation. And he seems to have figured out the best diet for thriving in this harsh environment: a mix of carbohydrates, protein and high-energy animal fats.
A diet high in fatty meats would also explain why Ötzi was in rather poor cardiovascular health; a study published earlier this year showed that he had hardened plaque around his heart, putting him at risk for a heart attack. But Albert Zink, another of the study’s co-authors, tells Dvorsky that the Iceman’s final meal “probably does not reflect his overall diet.” He may have been storing up on fats in preparation for a journey into the mountains, which could be why previous studies have shown that he was traveling with cured meat.
Why the meat came from wild and not domesticated animals is unclear. Ursula Wierer, an archaeologist from Soprintendenza Archeologia in Florence, Italy, who wasn’t involved with the new study, tells Dvorsky that Ötzi's "contemporaries" knew how to breed and raise livestock, so the presence of meat from wild animals is "interesting." Was Ötzi an outlier in his community, or would his final meal have looked different if he hadn't been preparing for his trek into the mountains?
Another curious find from the recent study was traces of bracken, a type of fern, in Ötzi’s stomach. Bracken is poisonous, and why the Iceman was eating it remains a mystery. He may have used it to wrap his food and ingested it unintentionally. Or, Zink tells Geggel of Live Science, he may have eaten it in the hopes of warding off the intestinal parasites previously found in his gut. The study authors note in their report that “bracken is still consumed today by different indigenous people” as a medicine, in spite of the plant’s toxicity.
The analysis of Ötzi’s final meal lends important insight into eating and food preparation habits during the Copper Age. Moving forward, researchers hope to reconstruct the Iceman’s gut microbiome and find out how the bacteria in his belly compares to that of modern humans.