What Ötzi the Iceman’s Tattoos Reveal About Copper Age Medical Practices

New study argues that the 5,300-year-old Iceman’s community boasted surprisingly advanced health care techniques

The Iceman's tattoos align with classic acupuncture points, and the plants found amongst his belongings have well-known medical applications © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz

For someone who lived roughly 5,300 years ago, Ötzi the Iceman is in surprisingly good shape. His remains, found by a pair of German tourists during a routine hike through the Alps in 1991, were entombed in ice shortly after his death, and the glacial conditions unwittingly preserved much of his tissue, bones and organs. Three decades worth of research have yielded intimate details of Ötzi’s life from his age, height and weight to manner of death—felled by an arrow to the left shoulder sometime during early summer, but less is known about the Iceman’s Copper Age peers.

Now, a team of European researchers has analyzed the tattoos scattered across Ötzi’s body, as well as the various herbs and medicines found alongside his remains, to paint a clearer picture of the Iceman’s community and its ancient medical practices, reports Joshua Rapp Learn for Science magazine. The scientists’ findings, newly published in the International Journal of Paleopathology, suggest Ötzi belonged to a society with a surprisingly advanced health care system.

Previous studies of the Iceman’s tattoos have hypothesized that the lines and crosses etched into his skin offered therapeutic benefits rather than simply serving as decorative embellishments. As Ancient Origins’ April Holloway writes, the tattoos, which were created via small incisions traced with charcoal, align with “hard-working areas of the human body,” including the ankles, wrists, knees and lower back. These spots are commonly associated with acupuncture treatments, raising the possibility that Ötzi’s community knew of the practice some 2,000 years before it was believed to have first emerged in Asia.

Archaeologists initially mapped all of Ötzi’s 61 inkings in 2015, Carl Engelking reports for Discover magazine. Prior to this examination, researchers thought the Iceman’s tattoos numbered closer to 59. Multispectral imaging analysis revealed a set of previously unidentified tattoos clustered on the Iceman’s chest, an area commonly associated with acupuncture points targeting intestinal disorders.

The new study draws on this existing body of knowledge to argue that Ötzi’s tattoos required “considerable effort … and, irrespective of the efficacy of the treatment, provided care for the Iceman.” The authors further stipulate that if Ötzi’s peers developed acupuncture, they must have undergone an extended regime of trial and error spurred by the desire—and ability—to develop medical practices.

Plants found amongst the Iceman’s belongings support the study’s portrait of an inquisitive, complex society. Birch polypore fungus tied to the leather bands of Ötzi’s tools may have calmed inflammation or acted as an antibiotic, Science’s Rapp Learn notes, while bracken fern detected in his stomach could have served as a tapeworm treatment. Traces of bog moss mirror makeshift bandages.

Given the sophisticated set of tools Ötzi wielded, as well as the “intentional design elements” apparent in his clothing, it’s not a stretch to extend an emphasis on craftsmanship to the Copper Age community’s medical practices.

As the authors conclude in their study, the “picture of an orderly, skilled and strategic form of operation puts provision of care into perspective.”

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