Stomach Troubles for the Iceman: How Otzi Continues to Provide Information About the Past
Ötzi, the Copper Age man, continues to tell tales of our homo sapien past. Now, an international team of scientists including paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner from the European Academy (EURAC) in Bozen/Bolzano have taken a peek into his stomach. What they discovered was a bacterium that may describe more than just one more illness to his growing list - the researchers believe it may also hint at migration patterns in the Copper Age.
Commonly known as “The Iceman”, Ötzi was first discovered by some German tourists in a glacier in Oetz Valley, Austria, in 1991. Since then, practically every aspect of his life has been studied. Research has revealed his age, how he died , what he wore , and what he ate . His genome has also been decoded and furthermore, some of his relatives have been found .
Even his tattoos were subjected to scrutiny. As Ancient Origins reported in 2013, the tattoos may have been a form of ancient acupuncture. The scientists from the 2013 study explained: “Radiological images of the tattooed areas show degenerative areas under the tattoos that could have caused pain, as the tattooing spots lie approximately over the acupuncture medians, it seems common opinion that they could have been use for that.” Ötzi’s tattoos suggested that he may have been suffering from ailments like rheumatism and arthritis, now stomach problems can be added to the list as well. It has also been shown that he suffered from heart and gum disease , gallbladder stones and parasites.
When the scientists from the current study put Ötzi’s stomach samples under the microscope nearly three years ago, they were skeptical to find anything more. “ Evidence for the presence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is found in the stomach tissue of patients today, so we thought it was extremely unlikely that we would find anything because Ötzi’s stomach mucosa is no longer there,” explained Zink.
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However, the Iceman has proven that his wellspring of stories from the past are not all dried up yet, and they found that Ötzi was still carrying the ancient bacterium. “ We showed the presence of marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter ,” the microbiologist, Maixner, told Past Horizons.
Samples taken from Ötzi’s stomach and intestines contained DNA from H. pylori , while his muscles contained no trace of the bacteria. Concentration is represented by a color gradient, starting with red (none) and increasing to green. ( Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum/EURAC/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz-Central Hospital Bolzano )
The strain of H. Pylori could have been quite painful for the Iceman as well: “When we looked at the genome of the Iceman's H. pylori bacteria, we found that it's quite a virulent strain, and we know that in modern patients it can cause stomach ulcers, gastric carcinoma and some pretty severe stomach diseases,” Zink said. [Via The Smithsonian ]
After making the H. pylori detection, the genome data was given to Thomas Rattei from the University of Vienna, who, in collaboration with geneticists from the USA, South Africa and Germany, found an even more surprising discovery: “ We had assumed that we would find the same strain of Helicobacter in Ötzi as is found in Europeans today ,” Rattei said. “ It turned out to be a strain that is mainly observed in Central and South Asia today.”
As they wrote in the journal Science (published January 8, 2016):
“The stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori is one of the most prevalent human pathogens. It has dispersed globally with its human host, resulting in a distinct phylogeographic pattern that can be used to reconstruct both recent and ancient human migrations. The extant European population of H. pylori is known to be a hybrid between Asian and African bacteria, but there exist different hypotheses about when and where the hybridization took place, reflecting the complex demographic history of Europeans. The “Iceman” H. pylori is a nearly pure representative of the bacterial population of Asian origin that existed in Europe before hybridization, suggesting that the African population arrived in Europe within the past few thousand years.”
While it was certainly an impressive technical feat to find the bacterium at all, some are understandably skeptical about the conjecture on using the new data to describe migration patterns. For example, microbiologist Mark Achtman of the University of Warwick in England told Science News “Big deal, they’ve got one 5,000-year-old person carrying the bacteria. To sketch out a story of human migration, the team needs to examine a lot more people.”