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Mosses Expand the Story of Ötzi the Iceman’s Final Journey

Seventy-five species of mosses and liverworts found in and around his body suggest he climbed the alps via a difficult gorge

(South Tyrol Museum)
smithsonian.com

In 1991, a hiker discovered the mummified, 5,300-year-old body of a man who had died in the Ötzal Alps along the border of Austria and Italy. Nicknamed Ötzi, the frozen corpse was so well-preserved that its injuries and stomach contents have helped researchers reconstruct the story of his last days in the mountains. Now, a new study of the mosses and liverworts found inside his body and near his corpse are telling us even more about this Copper Age man’s final days.

When Ötzi’s body was removed from the ice, researchers recovered thousands of scraps of moss and liverworts, a group known as bryophytes, from the area where he rested. Other bits of moss were found inside of him. For a new paper in the journal PLOS One, James Dickson of the University of Glasgow and his colleagues decided to identify the plants found in the mountain ice to see what they reveal about Ötzi.

Surprisingly, the team identified 75 different species of bryophytes, including 10 types of liverworts, according to a press release. Only about 30 percent, just 23 species, are native to the alpine region where the body was recovered, meaning the majority of the plants were transported to the site from elsewhere.

So how did they get there? It’s possible that bits of some of these plants were carried on the ice man’s clothes or could have been deposited in the area in the feces of large herbivores, like a type of wild goat called an ibex. But two species found in Ötzi’s digestive tract give clues to his life before he made his final climb into the mountains.

Ruby Prosser Scully at New Scientist reports that the researchers found a species called Sphagnum affine, or bog moss, in Ötzi’s colon. That species is only found in wetlands. The team suspects it may have come from the Vinschgau valley in South Tyrol, Italy, an area that some researchers believe the ice man called home. Because it has long been known to have antiseptic properties, Ötzi may have used it to treat a major wound on his hand.

Fragments of another moss, Neckera complanata, was also found in his intestines. That moss is a low-altitude species that grows in woodlands well below the alpine zone where Ötzi was discovered. Other species found near Ötzi can be traced to an area called Kurzras on to the northwest of the Schnalstal valley. It suggests Ötzi kept to the gorge as he ascended the mountains, which would have been a difficult trek.

“It seems puzzling that he took the most stressful track through a gorge, but considering scenarios that he was on the run, a gorge provided most opportunities to hide,” the researchers write in their paper.

The moss corroborates a 2007 paper that looked at pollen in Ötzi’s gut which suggested that in the last 33 hours of his life, he traveled from lower elevations with plenty of trees to the site of his death in the mountains.

So what happened to Ötzi and why did he flee to the mountains? Based on the injuries found on his body and an arrowhead embedded in his left should that likely killed him, researchers have come up with a scenario. David Leveille at PRI reports that in 2017 a team of archaeologists, forensic scientists and police detectives put together the story the best they could from the clues.

It’s believed that a few days before his death, Ötzi was involved in a fight. During the altercation, he grabbed a sharp object, like a knife, which caused a significant wound to his right hand. Ötzi collected his gear, including a copper ax, food, and a first aid kit, and fled, using some moss to treat his wound. He traveled up the rugged Schnalstal valley, staying in the gorge to cover his tracks until he made it into the high mountains. Somewhere along the journey, he tried to build a bow and arrow, possibly to replace one he left behind in the fight, but his wounded hand meant he couldn’t finish the job, leaving him without protection.

At some point before his death, he felt secure enough to eat a meal of cured ibex meat, but it wasn’t too long before his enemies or their allies caught up with him. He was shot in the back with an arrow that pierced a vital artery from about 100 feet away, and likely bled out from his wound in his final alpine resting spot.

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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