Prehistoric Relic: Otzi the Iceman

A reconstruction of the ancient man know as Otzi. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

A reconstruction of the ancient man know as Otzi. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Otzi is a man shrouded in mystery and wonder. His name was given to him because of the Ötztal mountain ridge in the Alps where his body was found, immaculately preserved for 5,300 years deep within a glacier. Just to put that timeline into prospective, he lived a thousand years before the pyramids and before the invention of the wheel. Otzi the Iceman, as he is commonly referred to, is the oldest, well-preserved, naturally mummified human body ever found.

If that’s not enough to get you excited, there’s more; he also has the oldest known tattoos, he is the oldest victim of homicide ever to be unearthed, and he was also carrying an axe that proves the Stone Age was ending a thousand years earlier than originally thought!



In 1991 when hikers in the Swiss Alps stumbled upon a human corpse, they had no idea how significant the find would be. In fact, it is pure luck that he survived the 5000 plus years of deep-freeze. Normally, when objects are trapped within a glacier they are pummeled to bits by the shifting ice sheet as it moves down hill. The force is strong enough to crush mountain ridges into pebbles, so how was Otzi spared?

The reason why the mummy still exists today is due to the trench he died in. With his body face down over a bolder, large rocks lined the small nook he was in. Eventually, massive amounts of snow fell over the body, the snow compacted and froze forming a glacier. Over thousands of years the glacier built up layers and inched its way forward. Because of the trench Otzi was in, the ice creaked along above him, completely shielding him from any outside influences for many years.



(and the awesome stuff he was carrying)

The ice essentially freeze-dried his body, even his eyeballs were found undamaged. Along with his body he had items that remained almost fully intact, as well. He was wearing shoes made of grass, skin and cording. He had a bearskin hat, leggings, a coat, loincloth and belt. He was traveling with a pack that contained a first aid kit consisting of medicinal tree fungi, leather, rope, a net, dagger, and maple leaves to carry embers. He had a stone knife and a bow and arrows.

Otzi's copper axe. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Otzi’s copper axe. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

The most perplexing item found with the iceman was his copper axe. Until Otzi’s discovery, it was not believed that humans had the technology to extract ore and cast metal tools at such an early age of human development. This alone was a major discovery that rewrote history books. It also may suggest that Otzi was a pivotal person in his community.

“Based on scant Copper Age finds discovered in what is today South Tyrol, everything indicates that Ötzi was a member of the first independent Alpine cultural group… Emerging during the last centuries of the fourth millennium BC.”- South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Through elaborate scientific studies done on the body, which includes X-rays, specialized autopsies, carbon dating and DNA sequencing, we now know much more about the man of mystery.

He was 5’2, in his 40’s. He had diastema, a gap between his two front teeth. Otzi had muscular legs, which seem to indicate he was accustomed to mountain hikes. The skin on his hands was not rough and calloused like that of a farmer’s, instead he may have been a Shepard or hunter. Grain, pollen, fat and Ibex meat were found in his stomach. This is an important clue because he lived at a time when groups of humans were just starting to settle into communities and beginning to cultivate wheat for the first time.

Otzi’s DNA can tell us a lot about humans during his time. It was found that he was suffering from arthritic Lyme disease; he was also genetically predisposed to heart disease and was lactose intolerant. Until Otzi, we had no idea that such diseases could be traced back so early through human history. Like all adults at that time, he could not digest milk. At the end of the Stone Age, humans had not yet acquired this capability. Infants could produce enzymes necessary to break (breast) milk down for digestion, but as they aged they lost the ability. Since then, a genetic mutation has occurred allowing most human the adaptation to consume dairy their entire lives.

And what about the fifty tattoos he had? “Several tattoos, mostly in the form of small lines and crosses, [were found in various places all over his body; some were] etched in soot around his joints. The markings are suspected to have been less decorative than therapeutic, since Otzi is thought to have suffered from joint pain” (Washington Post).

Otzi's naturally mummified remains. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Otzi’s naturally mummified remains. Photo credit: The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology


How do we know he was murdered? An arrowhead was found lodged in his shoulder. By examining the body we know he was shot from the back and fell face down onto a large rock. Blood was found on his brain, which indicates that he was either struck in the head as well, or hit his head on the bolder as he fell. What is known for sure is that after he was shot, the killer pulled the arrow’s shaft out of the Otzi’s body, as it was never recovered at the scene.

There is a lot of conjecture about his death. Some believe he was killed by roaming packs of hunters which were still frequent in his time. Others think he was murdered by someone from his community, someone who wanted to keep their identity hidden by taking the murder weapon.

“Copper began to be used in the late Neolithic period, but only in the Copper Age (3500 – 2300 BC) did it begin to be worked regularly into weapons, tools and jewelry. The knowledge of how to extract and refine copper spread came to Europe from the Near East via the Balkans and the Mediterranean region. The new resource brought about a fundamental economic and social transformation.
New trades in metallurgy emerged, leading to differentiation within the social structure”(A Time of Upheaval).

Could it have for social reasons that his life was taken? What is known for sure is that we may never who killed Otzi or why. However, he does have a massive amount of information to share with us and for that he will always be treasured.


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