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What will this frozen goat teach us about famous human ice mummies?

What a Frozen Alpine Goat Can Teach Us About Famous Ice Mummies

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DNA is especially important now in understanding our ancestors and the past. However, there is a problem in that it can often be difficult to analyze and preserve. The discovery of a mummified chamois, a goat like animal that is indigenous to mountainous areas of Europe, is now helping experts to evaluate DNA without damaging it irretrievably. This research can aid in the development of new conservation techniques for similar mummified remains. This means the frozen goat may be useful when it comes to understanding famous ice mummies .

The mummified chamois was found in the Val Aurina, South Tyrol, in the Italian Alps by some mountaineers. Experts from Eurac went to the site and one of them, Hermann Oberlechner, an Alpinist “realised that he was faced with a highly unique discovery and informed the relevant ranger,”according to Eurac. The item had been preserved for some four centuries and had only been recently revealed by a retreating glacier. Oberlechner told Science Daily that “Only half of the animal's body was exposed from the snow. The skin looked like leather, completely hairless; I had never seen anything like it.”

“Only half of the animal's body was exposed from the snow. The skin looked like leather, completely hairless; I had never seen anything like it.”

“Only half of the animal's body was exposed from the snow. The skin looked like leather, completely hairless; I had never seen anything like it.” ( Esercito Italiano - Comando Truppe Alpine )

Helicopter Transport for a Frozen Goat

It took a great deal of collaboration and care to remove the blanket of snow that covered the goat, which was not damaged while being removed. The experts wanted to get the chamois off the mountain so that it could be studied and preserved, but there was a problem. The discovery site is impassable and can only be reached by climbing and hiking for several hours.

The Italian Alpine Army Corps were asked for their assistance and they provided a helicopter. This brought the chamois remains down from the mountain and to a Eurac research center, where it has been placed in a refrigerated cell.

Marco Samadelli, conservation expert at Eurac Research, and Eurac Research anthropologist Alice Paladin with the 400-year-old chamois discovered in Val Aurina, South Tyrol (Italy). The discovery site, at 3200 m MSL, is impassable and can only be reached by a six-hour hike.

Marco Samadelli, conservation expert at Eurac Research, and Eurac Research anthropologist Alice Paladin with the 400-year-old chamois discovered in Val Aurina, South Tyrol (Italy). The discovery site, at 3200 m MSL, is impassable and can only be reached by a six-hour hike. For this reason, following their initial inspection, the researchers decided to ask for the support of the Alpine Army Corps in the recovery of the animal. (Esercito Italiano - Comando Truppe Alpine )

The chamois is not that important in itself, but it was soon realized that it could be useful as a simulant for research on biological matter that has been frozen. Marco Samadelli, a conservation expert at Eurac, told Heritage Daily that “Thanks to our previous studies we know the optimal physical and chemical parameters for preservation from a microbiological point of view.”

The chamois can be studied specifically with regard to the DNA and how conditions in the extreme cold altered its make-up. Samadelli told Heritage Daily “With repeated in-depth analysis we will verify what alterations the DNA undergoes when external conditions change.”

Immediately, the experts recognized that the chamois could be useful when developing new techniques to understand the DNA of ice mummies. Albert Zink, who heads research on Ice mummies at Eurac, is quoted by Heritage Daily as saying that “Our goal is to use scientific data to develop a globally valid conservation protocol for ice mummies. This is the first time an animal mummy has been used in this way.”

Preserving Ice Mummies

The frozen chamois can allow researchers to have a better understanding of ice mummies. Eureka Alerts reports that ‘an intact animal mummy is a perfect simulant for research.’ It can allow scientists to develop new techniques on how to extract DNA . These can then be used in new ways, not only to study ice mummies, but also to help preserve them, which is often very challenging.

As glaciers melt around the world, often due to climate change, many amazing finds are being made. Several crucial discoveries are being made in mountains, above the snowline. Lots of these discoveries include biological remains and human remains that have been mummified thanks to the extreme cold – the ice mummies. Naturally, they offer a unique opportunity for specialists to study the past.

Mummy Juanita and Ötzi, Two Famous Ice Mummies

Ötzi or Utzi is one of the most famous ice mummies to have been uncovered so far. This is the mummy of  a man who died over 5000 years ago in the Chalcolithic (Copper Age). Mummy Juanita is another famous ice mummy. This is the name given to the preserved remains of a young Inca girl who was killed as part of a sacrifice during the 16th century in the Andes.

Ötzi and Mummy Juanita.

Ötzi ( CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) and Mummy Juanita. ( Mummy Juanita )

Ice mummies are known as natural mummies because they have been preserved by natural conditions. These cadavers have not been subject to human procedures that mummified them as opposed to the case with Egyptian mummies .

The chamois remains are currently being evaluated at the Eurac Research Conservation Laboratory. This laboratory is dedicated to understanding how frozen mummies are preserved. The chamois can help specialists to develop preservation systems that can ensure that the remains of others are preserved, for posterity and especially, their crucial DNA.

Top image: What will this frozen goat teach us about famous human ice mummies? Source: Esercito Italiano - Comando Truppe Alpine

By Ed Whelan

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