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Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Did Ötzi the Iceman Actually Freeze to Death?


A new study suggests that Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman died of exposure to freezing temperatures in the Italian Alps. Researchers claim that his body and head injuries were most likely made during some hard times for the famous Tyrolean Iceman, but those injuries weren’t the cause of his death.

Who was Ötzi and Why is He Important to Science?

From the early 1990s when Ötzi’s mummified body was discovered in the Italian Alps, scientists have been debating and trying to find the exact cause of death of the 5,300-year-old Tyrolean Iceman.

Image of Ötzi the Iceman in a glacier.

Image of Ötzi the Iceman in a glacier. (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

For those who might not be familiar with Ötzi, he’s a naturally-preserved mummy of a male who lived around 3,300 BC. The mummy was discovered back in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, from where he derives his nickname ‘Ötzi’, on the border between Austria and Italy. He is considered to be Europe's oldest known natural human mummy and has offered an incredible amount of information regarding the Chalcolithic Europeans. His body and belongings are currently on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

Ötzi has been the subject of constant scientific research in these past 25 years and as a result he has been a regular “guest” here on Ancient Origins. Among other things, he’s known for yielding the oldest known human blood, for being a highly fashionable man for his time since he was wearing clothes from five different animal species, and being a “macho man” who had not one or two, but sixty-one tattoos all over his body. (Which may have been created for therapeutic purposes.)

Ötzi the Iceman’s body with 61 tattoos.

Ötzi t he Iceman’s body with 61 tattoos. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Reconstructing Ötzi’s Voice

The most impressive feat that scientists have achieved related to Ötzi, however, is undoubtedly the reconstruction of his voice. As April Holloway reported in a previous Ancient Origins article back in 2016, a team of scientists achieved the best approximation of Ötzi’s voice possible. The experiment, which was conducted to honor the 25th anniversary of his discovery, brought a form of life to the ancient mummy. The scientists replicated his voice to the best possible approximation primarily through the measurements of the length of his vocal tract and vocal cords.

However, they also had to reconstruct the entire structure of the vocal tract, which was the main challenge. In order to create a complete model of the vocal tract, including the vocal cords and mouth, the researchers moved Ötzi's arm, repositioned his skull in the erect position, reconstructed his vertebrae (from the first one closest to the skull to the first thoracic vertebra) and reconstructed and repositioned the hyoid bone, which supports the tongue. The scientists then “injected” synthesized sound into the reconstructed vocal tract.

Despite the amazing effort put into this project, the research team acknowledged that it would be impossible to recreate the precise sound of his voice without data related to the tension and density of the vocal cords and the composition of the soft tissues of the throat.

Severe Injuries Didn’t Kill Ötzi After All?

Only a few months after reconstructing his voice, a new study comes to add in the long series of research revolving around the most famous mummified Iceman in Western history. This time around, a new analysis based on X-rays and CT scans suggests that the head knocks and the severe arrow wound were not the ones that killed Ötzi. Instead, it now appears the famous Iceman froze to death, possibly after losing a small amount of blood from an arrow wound to his left shoulder, as anthropologist Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich stated at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. “Freezing to death is quite likely the main cause of death in this classic cold case,” Rühli said as Science News reports, estimating that Ötzi was exposed to the extremely cold and icy temperatures anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours before he died.

Scientists analyzing Ötzi.

Scientists analyzing Ötzi. (YouTube Screenshot)

Furthermore, Rühli appears to be confident that the violent penetration of the unknown weapon into Ötzi’s shoulder couldn’t cause him any fatal damage and estimates that the internal bleeding didn’t total more than a half cup of blood. That’s enough blood loss to cause a lot of pain and stress, but definitely not death, as Rühli explained.

Finally, regarding the Iceman’s skull wounds, Rühli is confident that they couldn’t be fatal either. He and his colleagues consider that those injuries were caused from accidental falls Ötzi had during his lifetime over the rough ground he was living and travelling in and they weren’t life-threatening.

Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Naturalistic reconstruction of Ötzi - South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Source: Public Domain

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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