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The Iceman is a mummy found in 1991 by some hikers in the Ötztal Alps on the border of Austria and Hungary. The mummy, affectionately dubbed Ötzi by the press, died either from exposure, or from what appears to be an arrowhead embedded in the upper back. Close examination of the arrowhead has not been attempted yet, and there is some debate whether it is an arrowhead or merely a sharp piece of rock that embedded itself after death.

Dating back 5300 years to the bronze age, Ötzi is important because of his remarkable state of preservation, which is not limited to his corpse, but to the every-day equipment that he carried on his journey in the mountains. Ötzi's equipment speaks of a man able to fend for himself in a time we can barely envision.

Ötzi had a longbow made of yew that was unstrung and not completely whittled into its final shape. He also had twelve arrows which were mostly unfletched, and two complete, but broken arrows. His arrow shafts were made of the wood of either the wayfaring tree (which produces long, straight stems of a suitable diameter) or the dogwood tree. The stone arrow-heads were flint. A hide quiver completed his collection.

Otzi's dagger was of flint, with a wooden handle. His most prized posession was a beautiful axe with a copper head and a yew handle. He also carried a hunting net.

Otzi apparently took great care to insure that he would be able to light a fire during the course of his travels. He had a wonderful fire-starting kit in a pouch on his belt. Fungus was used as tinder, and iron pyrites and flints were struck together to create sparks. There were also two birch-bark containers which contained the remains of live embers wrapped in leaves.

Otzi's clothes were functional and evocative of simpler times. His bearskin boots were insulated with dried grass. Leggings and loincloth made of deer and goat hides keep the chill away from his lower body while a jacket warmed his torso and arms. A bearskin hat topped him off. An interesting part of his ensemble was a water-resistant cape of grass woven together with fibers from the linden tree. This cape covered him from the shoulders to the knees like a poncho. Evidence seems to indicate that he died in the spring, but at the altitude that his mummy was discovered (3500 meters) Ötzi needed all the protection from the elements that his clothing would have provided.

Other finds included a thong threaded through some pieces of 'birch bracket fungus' that is known to have antibiotic properties, and tattoos which appeared to serve more than a simple decorative function - some of them above known pressure points or acupuncture points - which may indicate a medical or theraputic purpose.

Ötzi had tattoos running along his back, right knee and left ankle. These were not decorative - photographs of the corpse show that they are merely small, undistinguished symbols. Some are crosses while others are chevrons or grouped stripes. Some were actually in areas that were covered with hair. These points, and the fact that other well-preserved mummies have been found with similar, seemingly non-decorative tattoos, lead a significant number or researchers to conclude that they are evidence of some kind of therapy akin to modern acupuncture practices. Theory is that a number of pre-historic societies utilized these pressure points as a means of treating certain medical problems, and the Chinese were the only ones that preserved the discipline all the way to modern times.

Some researchers have catagorized Ötzi's fifteen tattoos and determined that they all correspond (with various degrees of precision explained by the skin stretching after death) to either traditional acupuncture points, or to so-called 'local points' and 'acupuncture meridians' which allow acupuncture practitioners to orient themselves and provide a baseline from which other acupuncture points can be found.

X-rays of Ötzi's body have indicated that he had a fairly advanced case of arthritis in his lumbar spine (and in some other areas). Forensic evidence indicates that he was in his 40s when he died. Interestingly, nine of his tattoos were located directly above acupuncture points associated with the so-called 'urinary bladder meridian' which is stimulated to treat back pain. One tattoo, on his left ankle, is considered a so-called 'master point' for treating back pain.

The remaider of his tattoos were above acupuncture points included in the gallbladder, spleen, and liver meridians - all used to treat abdominal disorder. Otzi's intestines were filled with whipworm eggs. This intestinal parasite causes significant stomach pain.

Modern-day practitioners of acupuncture seem to agree that, taken together, the groups of acupuncture points delineated by these tattoos are "a combination of points ... representing a meaningful therapeutic regimen". One person theorized that these tattoos were for "self treatment ... to puncture when pains occur".

The hiking trip that young Helmut and Erika Simon took in the Alps on the border of Austria and Italy in the late summer of 91 ceased going according to plan when they stumbled upon the frozen corpse.

Though it was very much the worse for exposure to the elements, they, like the police when they arrived, figured it was the remains of some unfortunate soul who met his end in a climbing accident some time in the past decade.

It was only after the Austrians, using tools that included a hair drier, managed to remove him from the ice and take him into Innsbruck that they began to form the suspicion that the corpse was much older.

The results of radio-carbon dating suggested that the corpse had been preserved for more than 5000 years old.

The Austrians called him Ötzi.

True, time had shrunken and stained his skin until it resembled the outside of a roasted chicken, but although a truly gruesome sight, Ötzi’s age and incredible state of preservation still went beyond anything found before and offered a unique insight into life in Europe at the dawn of recorded time.

The scientists who examined him were able to sketch the tattoos on his ankles and check under the fingernails of his five thousand year old hands. A look inside in his lungs made it clear that he had spent most of his life living in smoke filled huts, whilst an analysis of his bones showed that he had suffered from malnutrition throughout his childhood. A lot of the information the scientists gleaned from Ötzi and his possessions about the lifeways of Neolithic Europe was stuff that had already been inferred, but this new discovery brought things they had previously just suspected alive in a way that was real and immediate and almost without parallel in the history of people studying the past.

Both what Ötzi was doing so high in the alps and the exact circumstances of his demise are uncertain, although he was clearly very well prepared for the climate. He was swaddled in garments made from fur, topped off with a bear skin cap, and also wore a cloak of woven grass. For when the evening fell he was carrying pyrite stone to make the sparks he would need to start his campfire.

A few seeds caught in his clothing indicate that, in the days before he died, he had been in a farming village down on what is today the Italian side of the Alps, and although there are a lot of theories as to what he was doing up there the reference book I’m using suggests that he might have been hunting goats. He certainly was well armed, carrying a bow and quiver full of arrows as well as a dagger made out of flint.

Whatever he was doing, it is clear that he wasn’t alone. Lodged deep in left shoulder is a stone arrow-head and scientists were able to identify a dagger wound on one of his hands. One scenario I’ve read is that he managed to fight off his attackers, whoever they were, only to die of cold, hunger and loss of blood as he took shelter in a ravine, although more recent research has suggested they may have caught up with him and killed him with a blow to the head.

Poor Ötzi, both in the way he died and the way he lived it’s clear that his existence was fraught with danger and cold. For me the whole story is somehow touching in what it says about life, always and everywhere and for everyone, being so full of struggle.


Brian Fagan, Ancient Lives: An Introduction to Archaeology and Prehistory, Prentice Hall, 2007


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