New Study Raises Questions about the Tyrolean Iceman’s Murder Scene
A new study of ice cores at a previously unexplored ice dome in the Ötztal Alps on the border of Austria and Italy has examined the environment in which the Tyrolean Iceman, popularly known as Otzi, lived. It shows there was a change happening around the time of the Tyrolean Iceman, raising questions about what the environment looked like where he died.
The Tyrolean Iceman is one of the names that has been given to a mummified body of a 45-year-old man who lived during the Copper Age, between 3370-3100 BC. His well-preserved body was discovered by some German tourists in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps in the South Tyrol region of Italy in 1991. The location where he was found is how the mummy gained the name Otzi (also spelled Ötzi and Oetzi). Previous research has examined his body, clothing, tools, and other personal belongings, and it has been concluded that he likely died after being shot by an arrow .
Scientific studies have revealed a wealth of information about the Tyrolean Iceman over the years. ( South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology /EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz)
The new study, led by Pascal Bohleber of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Innsbruck, Austria, and published in Nature, states that “The well-preserved state of the corpse and of artifacts suggests that they had been conserved in frozen conditions. The ice field […] must therefore have been present during several known periods of glacier retreat , such as the Roman and Medieval warm phases.”
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Did the Tyrolean Iceman Die in an Icy Crevasse or an Ice-Free Zone?
To find out more about the environment during the time when the Tyrolean Iceman lived the researchers analyzed two ice cores from ice frozen to the bedrock of the Weißseespitze summit glacier in the Ötztal Alps. Those ice cores were taken at a 3,500 meter (11,482.9 ft.) altitude and just 12 km (7.5 miles) from where the Iceman was found at a 3,210 meter (10,531.5 ft.) altitude.
The ice core drilling operation at Weißseespitze summit glacier. A special lightweight electromechanical drill was used to recover two ice cores. (Credit: Norbert Span/ Nature 2020 )
Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers showed that the ice just above the bedrock at 11 meters (36.1 ft.) depth was 5,900 years old. A Nature press release explains that because “the ice just above the bedrock is the first to have formed after an ice-free period, determining its maximum age can identify past ice-free periods.”
The study results indicate that a little before the Tyrolean Iceman lived “rapid ice formation started and some of this ice cover exists to this day.” This has led the researchers to conclude that “in the Alps only the highest elevation sites remained ice‑covered throughout the Holocene. Just before the life of the Iceman, high Alpine summits [4,000 meters (13,123.4 ft.) and above] were emerging from nearly ice‑free conditions, during the start of a Mid‑Holocene neoglaciation.”
Aerial view of the Weißseespitze summit glacier with its special dome-shaped geometry. (Credit: Andrea Fischer/ Nature 2020 )
This study provides some insight on what the region may have looked like when Otzi was alive, but can it tell us anything about the Tyrolean Iceman’s site of death ? Well, not so much. The paper explains that the mummy was discovered in a small ice field at Tisenjoch, which is no longer present, and “Unfortunately, after the discovery of the Iceman, pollen analyses were only conducted on the surrounding ice.”
The researchers write that the scientists who examined the site of the Tyrolean Iceman’s death in the 90s did not have the ability to use radiometric dating on the “carbonaceous aerosols embedded in the ice matrix” – something that’s possible with today’s technology. That means that they were unable to date the glacier ice itself and the opportunity has been lost which “could have told us if the Iceman had in fact died in a mostly ice-free environment, or if he fell into a crevasse on a glacier-covered Tisenjoch,” according to the researchers.
The Tyrolean Iceman, Studied Again and Again
Although researchers have missed the chance to discover what the environment around Otzi’s murder looked like, there are so many other aspects of the Tyrolean Iceman’s life and death which have been studied since the mummy was found. Research has revealed his age, how he died , what he wore , the tools he carried, and what he ate . His genome has also been decoded , revealing the homeland of his parents and where his closest living relatives would probably be found .
A study of his tattoos , which may have been a form of ancient acupuncture, has suggested many things about Otzi’s state of health. That study and others reveal that the Tyrolean Iceman may have been suffering from rheumatism and arthritis. Helicobacter pylori, heart and gum disease, and gallbladder stones are also included in his list of ailments as well. In 2018, researchers even provided a detailed reconstruction of the Iceman’s last days , just by examining his toolkit.
Reconstruction of Ötzi‘s last days, based on the Iceman’s last itinerary and meals, the state of his wounds, the causes of his death, and the damaged and insufficient equipment. ( Wierer et al )
The continuous testing has led some people to wonder if the body of the famous Iceman will ever be able to rest in peace. Dr. Albert Zink, a scientist in charge of Ötzi’s preservation, has responded to that concern, saying :
“There has been some discussion on this. But this man is 5,300 years old. We do treat him with respect; and, besides, even if we were to bury him, we wouldn’t be able to do it according to his customs because we don’t know what they were.”
Reconstruction of the Tyrolean Iceman's by Alfons & Adrie Kennis. ( South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter )
In faintly preserved Paleolithic rock etchings made by early humans, in the lines of millennia-old historical texts, and among intricate illustrations of medieval manuscripts, we find displays and descriptions of all manner of strange and astonishing people, both real and unreal. The archaeological record also yields its fair share of ‘odd bodies’ – abnormally elongated skulls, gem-encrusted teeth, bizarre hybrid burials that combine animals and humans into grotesque beasts reminiscent of the mythological chimeras of ancient cultures, and surprising artificial body parts, including peg legs with horse hooves, and a warrior knight with a dagger hand!
In this issue, we take you on a journey through the weird and wonderful world of odd bodies, odd burials, and odd people. Find out more here.
Top Image: Window looking into the Iceman's refrigerated cell. A new study explores the environment in which the Tyrolean Iceman (Otzi) died. Source: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter