Ötzi the Iceman

By Sami Jo-Adelman
Image by Diego Soprana

Week 48

On September 19th 1991, two hikers Erika and Helmut Simon discovered a human corpse wedged into a melting glacier on Hauslabjoch Pass in the Ötzal Alps. They assumed they’d found the remains of an unfortunate mountaineer caught in a winter storm.
It took several attempts before the human corpse was finally removed from the ice on September 23rd 1991, by an Alpine team under the leadership of Rainer Henn from the Innsbruck University Institute of Forensic Medicine. Along with the corpse, numerous pieces of leather, string, straps, clumps of hay and tools (axe, dagger, arrows and bow) were discovered. The corpse, clothing and equipment were subsequently transported by helicopter to the town of Vent in the Austrian Ötz Valley.
Six days after the mummy was discovered, archaeologist Konrad Spindler (Professor of Ancient and Early History at Innsbruck University) was brought in. He examined the finds, and based on the typology of the axe, dated the body to be at least four thousand years old. Four scientific institutions analysed tissue samples of the corpse using radiocarbon dating, and it was proved that the man lived between 3350 and 3100BC.
The corpse – subsequently nicknamed Ötzi, or the Iceman – is the oldest mummified remains ever found in Europe, dating from an ancient Copper Age civilization that lived in the Dolomites around the same time as ancient Egypt’s founding.
Though originally claimed by the Austrian government, it was later revealed that the corpse had been found 92.56m inside the Italian border of South Tyrol. The province of South Tyrol therefore claimed property rights but entrusted the finds as a whole to Innsbruck University until scientific examinations could be completed.

The mummy was returned to Bolzano, Italy in 1998 and since then has been on display at the Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Atidge. After detailed examination of the 1.54m-long mummy weighing just 13kg, scientists determined that the body was definitely male and around 45 years old at the time of death. The research team was also able to diagnose several anatomic anomalies using modern imaging techniques; Ötzi lacked a twelfth pair of ribs, he had no wisdom teeth and a significant diastema, a natural gap between his two upper incisors.
Ötzi’s entire body was also covered in 61 Copper Age tattoos. These weren’t produced using a needle, but by making fine cuts in the skin and then rubbing in charcoal. The result was a series of lines and crosses mostly located on parts of the body that are prone to injury or pain, such as the joints and along the back. This has led some researchers to believe that the tattoos marked acupuncture points.
What Ötzi was actually doing 3200m up a glaciated mountainside, 52 centuries before alpinism became a series sport, it still a matter of debate. The museum explores many suggested scenarios, as well as the events leading to his death.
A series of x-rays conducted in 2001, which revealed an arrowhead lodged in Otzi’s left shoulder, suggest that he most likely bled to death as a result of this wound. It punctured a major blood vessel and damaged the neurovascular fascicles on the left arm. In addition, a deep unhealed wound to the hand confirms that the Iceman was involved in hand-to-hand combat hours or days before his death. His frozen body is kept in a temperature controlled ‘igloo’ room and can be viewed through a small window in the museum.
Until this discovery, such a well preserved find of a human several thousand years old – fully clothed and with personal belongings – had never before been seen anywhere in the world.