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A rest, a meal, then death

25 October 2011 European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano

There is now broad agreement on the circumstances of Ötzi’s death. Around 100 experts on mummies from nearly every single continent gathered for the “2nd Bolzano Mummy Congress” held at the European Academy of Bolzano from the 20th to the 22nd October 2011, with the aim of discussing any diseases he might have been suffering from and the events surrounding his death. From the moment of his discovery twenty years ago Ötzi, the 5,000 year old glacier mummy, has been puzzling the scientific research community, though little by little he is also revealing many of his secrets.

There was broad agreement at the Bolzano Congress about the last hour of his life. Albert Zink, Head of the Institute for Mummy Research at EURAC, reports as follows about the circumstances of the Iceman’s death: “He felt safe enough to take a break, and settled down to a copious meal. While thus resting, he was attacked, shot with an arrow and left for dead.” There was no evidence pointing to a possible burial as some scientists have suggested in the past. “The position of the mummified body with his arm pointing obliquely upwards, the lack of any piles of stones or other features which often accompany burial sites, runs counter to the burial theory”, he continues.

But there is still the problem of what was Ötzi doing up there, at a height of 3,200 metres? At the Bolzano Congress, the Innsbruck based scientists Andreas Putzer, Daniela Festi and Klaus Oeggl refuted the theory, first put forward in 1996, according to which Ötzi was a shepherd who had taken his herd to pastures high up in the mountains to graze during the summer months. According to the latest archaeological and botanical findings, there was no seasonal migration of cattle during the Chalcolithic period, the Copper Stone Age. The so called transhumance did not start until around 1500 BC.

Ötzi was not on the run. On the contrary, between 30 and 120 minutes before his death he had settled down to a hearty meal, as evidenced by stomach samples investigated by Albert Zink and his team this past summer. Goat meat, grains of corn, pieces of leaves, apples and flies’ wings were clearly discernible under the microscope.

Innsbruck Botanist Klaus Oeggl was able to detect pollen from the Hop-hornbeam in Ötzi’s stomach. Oeggl had, some time ago, discovered a high concentration of such pollen in Ötzi’s bowels and had concluded that Ötzi had actually died in the spring and not, as had been assumed for some time, in the autumn. Since food remains fresher in the stomach where it only stays two to four hours, the discovery of pollen in this part of the body gives further weight to this theory.

Nanotechnology used on a brain sample at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich was able to confirm a further assumption: Ötzi did in fact suffer trauma to his skull and brain. This alone would have been sufficient to cause death, but was no doubt at least a contributory factor along with his arrow wound. What is still unclear is whether he incurred the trauma through a fall or a blow to the head.

The majority of the findings are based on the examination of tissue samples from the stomach and the brain taken endoscopically by a team of scientists from Magdeburg, Bolzano and Munich in November last year. Since then, scientists from almost all disciplines have been investigating these samples from their own specific scientific angles using subject-specific methods: medics, nanotechnologists, anthropologists, biochemists, archaeologists and physicists. There are now over 100 “Ötzi researchers”, and the Bolzano Mummy Congress represents a so far unique opportunity for them to discuss the present state of research face-to-face at a gathering which was specifically dedicated to the famous iceman. 

Attached files

  • Albert Zink, Head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, EURAC


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