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Reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman by Alfons & Adrie Kennis. (Thilo Parg/CC BY SA 3.0) View looking down westwards to the Ötzi site. (J.H. Dickson et al)

Moss Reveals New Route For Otzi's Death Walk


His 5,300-year-old mummy contained traces of 75 plant species and reveal that Ötzi (Otzi) the Iceman climbed through the Schnalstal valley in Italy.

The naturally mummified, 5,300-year-old corpse is known by many names including: the Iceman, Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, and the Tyrolean Iceman, but he is perhaps best known as Ötzi.

Having been discovered in 1991 by hikers on the eastern flank of Fineilspitze, a peak in the Ötztal Alps at 10,532 feet (3,210 meters) above sea level, scientists have now retraced Ötzi the Iceman’s last path before he climbed to his final resting place. And it wasn’t a weapon, an artifact, or a footprint that enabled the study. Genetic evidence gathered from ancient liverworts and mosses that had been frozen in time with the Iceman revealed 70% of the 75 species tested were found to be “not local.”

Ötzi the Iceman while still frozen in the glacier, photographed by Helmut Simon upon the discovery of the body in September 1991. (Fair Use)

A new paper written by archaeobotanist Jim Dickson and his team of researchers at the University of Glasgow says that accompanying the Copper Age figure “an abundance” of plant and fungi traces were preserved on his clothing and in his gut. Testing these, the scientists successfully identified “thousands of moss and liverwort fragments” belonging to 75 different species, with only 30 percent of them local to the environment in which Ötzi died.

And it was by investigating the origins of the 70% non-local species that the scientists concluded Ötzi had “not” ascended adjacent valleys in modern South Tyrol, Italy, but he climbed from the south, northwards up Schnalstal.

Image of the Ötzi site. (Professor Jim Dickson)

Otzi the Iceman was Unknowingly Climbing Towards Heaven

The paper says Ötzi's frozen body, especially his gut, contained an abundance of plant and fungi traces but so too did samples taken from his grass-and-leather shoes, leather coat, leather leggings, fur hat, grass coat, and loincloth. The author wrote in his new paper that most of us “are unlikely to be knowledgeable about bryophytes mosses and liverworts,” but he explains that some of the mosses are very important when tracking “the precise route of his (Ötzi’s) very last journey.”

Scientific examination of the Ötzi mummy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)

With test results indicating that 30% of the identified bryophytes were from local species, one ‘could’ conclude that the remaining 70% ‘obviously’ came with Ötzi from elsewhere, but it was considered that maybe large mammalian herbivores laid droppings alongside the frozen Iceman after he had died, and hopefully not while he was dying. However, several of the identified mosses still thrive today in the lower Schnalstal valley, which suggested to the researchers that Ötzi had traveled along the Schnalstal valley during his ascent; a conclusion corroborated by previous pollen research, pinpointing Schnalstal as the Iceman's likeliest route of ascent.

Do Mosses Indicate Self-Medication?

With their results, Dickson and his team asked questions such as “where” did the plant fragments come from and “how” did they get there? Speculating, Dickson noted that one particular type of moss was used traditionally for “staunching wounds” because of its mild antiseptic properties and maybe it had been used to treat the deep wound on the Iceman’s right palm which occurred “possibly 48 hours or less before his death”, wrote Dickson.

Furthermore, a New Scientist report says Dickson was “surprised” to find fragments of the moss  Neckera complanata in the Iceman’s intestines because this is a low-altitude moss of the woodlands found at 3,200 meters (10498.69 ft.) above sea level, which is way above the tree line. And the author says “these mosses couldn’t possibly have grown there” - suggesting Ötzi had walked from the lower forests at between 600 and 1200 meters (1968.5-3937 ft.) above sea level before venturing northward up the gorge in which he died.

Taphonomic processes that led to the deposition of flowering plant remains at the Ötzi discovery site according to Heiss and Oeggl. (J.H. Dickson et al)

The Hard “Why”

What remains something of a mystery is “why” Ötzi died where he did - for it really is no place for man, woman, or beast, (excluding giant herbivores). Dickson ruminated that is was “puzzling” that he had chosen to hike “the most stressful track through a gorge” and considers that he was maybe on the run with a gorge offering the most “opportunities to hide,” as Dickson and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

The Ötzi site still iced up, late August 2000. (J.H. Dickson et al)

The Ötzi site still iced up, late August 2000. (J.H. Dickson et al)

Returning to Ötzi’s gut, the team of researchers found several other moss species from Kurzras, to the north-west of the Schnalstal valley, around 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) from Vinschgau at an elevation of around 2250 meters (7381.89 ft.) above sea level; and the researchers say this might have been the Iceman’s “last stop before his sprint up to 3210 metres and his eventual death.”

Top Image: Reconstruction of Otzi the Iceman by Alfons & Adrie Kennis. (Thilo Parg/CC BY SA 3.0) View looking down westwards to the Ötzi site. (J.H. Dickson et al)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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