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Otzi reconstructed

Evidence From Ötzi Tells Us He Came From a Caring Bunch Who Dabbled in Medicine

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There has long been speculation about the purpose of the tattoos on the body of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy, who was discovered by some German tourists in the Oetz Valley, Austria, in 1991. A new study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology finds that the tattoos and other elements found were likely for the betterment of Ötzi’s health, and that the Copper Age man belonged to a group with some sophisticated medical practices.

Ötzi was originally believed to be the frozen corpse of a mountaineer or soldier who died during World War I. Tests later confirmed the iceman dates back to 3,300 BC and most likely died from a blow to the back of the head. He is Europe's oldest natural human mummy and, remarkably, his body contained the still intact blood cells, which resembled a modern sample of blood. They are the oldest blood cells ever identified. His body was so well-preserved that scientists were even able to determine that his last meal was red deer and herb bread, eaten with wheat bran, roots and fruit.

One of the more surprising discoveries about Ötzi, is the series of tattoos found all over his body, which researchers believe may have been an early form of acupuncture.

His body art, the only known example of Copper Age tattoos, includes more than 50 tattoos across the body, most of which are formed of lines and crosses which were made by making small incisions in the skin and then rubbing them with charcoal.

A cross-shaped tattoo on Otzi's knee. Photo source.

The tattoos were first thought to be merely decorative, however, a 2014 study claimed that it is more likely the tattoos were made for therapeutic purposes and were an ancient form of acupuncture.

“Radiological images of the tattooed areas show degenerative areas under the tattoos that could have caused pain,” said a spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. “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 were found on all the parts of the body that showed evidence of wear and tear, including his ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back, leading the researchers to suspect that the tattoos were used therapeutically to relieve ailments like rheumatism and arthritis. If this is true, then this could constitute the earliest form of acupuncture, which was thought to have been invented more than 2,000 years later in Asia.

Using this and further existing evidence from one of the most examined corpses in history, the researchers have concluded, “considerable effort … and, irrespective of the efficacy of the treatment, provided care for the Iceman,” reports Smithsonianmag. It is therefore postulated that he members of the culture performing the treatment must have wanted to develop some kind of healing system and undertaken practice and experimentation in order to develop the form of acupuncture treatment Ötzi appears to have received.

A series of lines found on Otzi's back. Photo source.

The spokesman for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology said that if indeed the tattoos were created as a form of acupuncture, “people of the Iceman's times would have known not only about nature around them, but also about the human body and its reactions - I think this is remarkable.”

The writers of the latest study summarize:

We carefully re-evaluated the various health issues of the Iceman, including joint diseases, gastrointestinal problems and arterial calcifications and compared them to the location and number of tattoos. Together with the finding of medically effective fungi and plants, such as the birch polypore or fern in his equipment and intestines, we suggest that care and treatment was already common during the Iceman’s time.

Other evidence found with the corpse which the study claims supports the medical account are the plants used in the production of his tools, which have anti-inflammatory properties, and bog moss found on the corpse which could have served as temporary bandaging.

The overriding suggestion from the evidence presented is, regardless of the effectiveness, this Copper Age society had more advanced medicinal practices than previously would have been attributed to it.

Top image: Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman by Kennis (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/ ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Joanna Gillan



A little trivia. Did you know that Brad Pitt has a copy of a tattoo on Otzi tattooed on himself? True story.

Very informative & thought provoking; Verification of sources is also available.

Joanna Gillan's picture


Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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