by Robert A. Waters
5300 years ago, a solitary man met a violent death in the Alps. Called “Iceman” because he was found half-frozen in ice, he has been subjected to scientific scrutiny for more than two decades. The results of those studies have constantly shifted, but some things are known.
In September, 1991, while climbing a mountain pass on the border between what is now Italy and Austria, hikers found a frozen corpse. They called local gendarmes, who pried the remains from its icy grave. Once inspectors hauled the Iceman to a police lab, they realized his age and called scientists. Otzi, as he is also known, soon became the world’s most ancient celebrity. Suddenly, a routine police investigation became an international inquiry to discover everything possible about some of the oldest known remains in the world.
Investigators returned to the site and found numerous items carried by the Iceman. These included the oldest copper axe ever found, as well as a bow and arrows, and a flint-bladed knife. Scientists also recovered clothing, including shoes, a cloak, coat, leggings, cap, and other apparel. The Iceman had worn a belt with a leather pouch that contained a scraper, drill, flint flake, and bone awl—this was probably a fire-starting kit. A basket contained medicinal herbs and berries for food.
The Iceman seemed prepared for the cold climes of the Alps.
But he was not prepared for the attackers who killed him.
The thing that fascinates me about Otzi is that he is so similar to modern man. Research has shown that he had many of the ailments that we’re afflicted with, including cavities, worn bones (arthritis), Lyme disease, and even lactose intolerance. He had nearly fifty tattoos covering his body. During his lifetime, he faced danger, and carried weapons for protection. The Iceman attempted to keep himself warm by wearing the best clothing possible. He ate relatively well, and traveled long distances.
He engaged in many battles during his 45 years on earth. His hands, back, and legs showed signs of many wounds. The Iceman’s last encounter left him dying in an ice-flow high above the meadow where he likely lived.
Who were his enemies? Researchers don’t know. One guess is that another clan may have attacked his village and Otzi fled into the mountains. There he was chased down and shot in the back with an arrow. (Doctors discovered a flint arrow less than an inch from his heart.) After being shot, he may have fallen, or been unable to flee, because it is known that he engaged in hand-to-hand combat shortly before he died. The Iceman was likely killed by a blow to the back of his head.
National Geographic published this report of his final fight: “[Archaeologist Thomas] Loy believes that the Iceman died in a boundary dispute with several individuals and that the Copper Age male received his first wound as early as 48 hours before his death. According to Loy, the Iceman shot two different people with his arrow (DNA of two individuals were found on his arrow), each time managing to retrieve the arrow from his victim. The Iceman's success, however, was short-lived. He missed his last target, shattering his arrow-shaft. The Iceman died before he could fix his weapon. He was shot in the back with an arrow and was also badly cut on one hand. Loy's reconstruction suggests the Iceman stacked his gear carefully on a nearby ledge, slumped over a rock, and died.”
This is just one interpretation of what may have happened high on the Alps that fateful day. Other theories abound. But what we do know is that the Iceman lived and breathed and died more than 5,000 years ago. Continued study will no doubt open new windows into his short, sad life.