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The Iceman - Lost in the Italian Alps 5,000 Years Ago

What have archaeologists learned about the Iceman?


Reconstruction of the Iceman's Clothing and Equipment at the Museum Bélesta, Ariège, France

Reconstruction of the Iceman's Clothing and Equipment at the Museum Bélesta, Ariège, France

Italian Alps

Italian Alps

Gaspar Torriero

Otzi the Iceman, also called Similaun Man, Hauslabjoch Man or even Frozen Fritz, was discovered in 1991, eroding out of a glacier in the Italian Alps near the border between Italy and Austria. The human remains are of a Late Neolithic or Chalcolithic man who was died between about 3350-3300 BC. Because he ended up in a crevasse, his body was perfectly preserved by the glacier in which he was found, rather than crushed by the glacier's movements in the last 5,000 years. The remarkable level of preservation has allowed archaeologists the first detailed look into clothing, behavior, tool use and diet of the period.

So Who Was Otzi the Iceman?

The Iceman stood about 158 cm (5'2") tall, and weighed about 61 kg (134 lbs). He was rather short compared to most European males of the time, but sturdily built. He was in his mid-40s, and his strong leg muscles and overall fitness suggest that he may have spent his life herding sheep and goats up and down the Tyrolean Alps. He died about 5200 years ago, in the late spring. His health was fair for the period--he had arthritis in his joints and he had whipworm, which would have been quite painful.

Otzi had several tattoos on his body, including a cross on the inside of his left knee; six parallel straight lines arranged in two rows on his back above his kidneys, each about 6 inches long; and several parallel lines on his ankles. Some have argued that tattooing may have been some sort of acupuncture.

The Iceman's Clothing and Equipment

The Iceman carried a range of tools, weapons, and containers. An animal skin quiver contained arrow-shafts made of viburnum and hazel wood, sinews and spare points. A copper ax head with a yew haft and leather binding, a small flint knife and a pouch with a flint scraper and awl were all included in the artifacts found with him. He carried a yew bow, and researchers at first thought the man had been a hunter-gatherer by trade, but additional evidence makes it clear he was a pastoralist--a Neolithic herder.

Otzi's clothing included a belt, loincloth, and goat-skin leggings with suspenders, not unlike lederhosen. He wore a bear-skin cap, outer cape and coat made of woven grass and moccasin-type shoes made from deer and bear leather. He stuffed those shoes with moss and grasses, no doubt for insulation and comfort.

Iceman's Last Days

Otzi's stable isotopic signature suggests that he was probably born near the confluence of the Eisack and Rienz rivers of Italy, near where the town of Brixen is today, but that as an adult, he lived in the lower Vinschgau valley, not far from where he was eventually found.

The Iceman's stomach held cultivated wheat, possibly consumed as bread; game meat, and dried sloe plums. Blood traces on the stone arrow points he carried with him are from four different people, suggesting he had participated in a fight for his life.

Further analysis of the contents of his stomach and intestines have allowed researchers to describe his last two to three days as both hectic and violent. During this time he spent time in the high pastures of the Otzal valley, then walked down to the village in the Vinschgau valley. There he was involved in a violent confrontation, sustaining a deep cut on his hand. He fled back into the Tisenjoch ridge where he died.

Moss and the Iceman

Four important mosses were found in Otzi's intestines and reported in 2009 by JH Dickson and colleagues. Mosses are not food. They're not tasty, they're not nutritious. So what were they doing there?

  • Neckera complanata and Anomodon viticulosus. These two species of moss are found on lime-rich, shady rocks in woodlands, growing close to and south of where Otzi was found, but not north. The presence of them inside Otzi probably came from their use as food-wrapping and suggests that Otzi wrapped his last meal south of where he died.
  • Hymenostylium recurvirostrum This species of moss is known to hang about on marble. The only outcrop of marble in the vicinity of Otzi's body is on the Pfelderer Tal, suggesting that at least on one of his last journeys, Otzi climbed into the Alps westwards up the Pfelderer Tal.
  • Sphagnum imbricatum Hornsch: Sphagnum moss doesn't grow in the South Tyrol where Otzi died. It's a bogmoss, and the only likely location within walking distance of where he died, is the broad, low-lying valley of Vinschgau, where Otzi resided for his adult life. Sphagnum moss has a specific ethnographic use as dressings for wounds, because it is soft and absorbent. Otzi's hand was deeply cut three-eight days before he died, and researchers think it's possible that this moss was used to staunch his wound, and was transferred to his food from the dressings on his hand.

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