History & Culture

Ötzi The Iceman: Facts, Theories, Disputes & More

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Ötzi The Iceman reconstruction.

Have you heard the story of the frozen Iceman mummy? Ötzi the Iceman is a well-preserved natural mummy from around 3,300 and 3,105 BC. Discovered in 1991, Ötzi has enthralled researchers and laypeople alike. His ancient DNA is a peek back into time and offers us an understanding of Neolithic life we would not otherwise have. Below, I look at what history knows about Ötzi as well as what he has been able to teach archaeologists about life in 3,300 BC.

Basic Facts About Ötzi The Iceman

Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in September of 1991 in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. As Europe’s oldest natural mummy, Ötzi is believed to have died in 3255 BC at the age of 45 or 46. Ötzi is also recognized as the oldest natural mummy of a European man from the Copper Age. Archaeologists refer to him as a Chalcolithic mummy.

Researchers believe that Ötzi bled to death as the result of an arrow wound found in his shoulder. Researchers have determined that Ötzi would have stood around 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 110 pounds.

The mummy of Ötzi can be viewed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, along with his belongings. His body is currently stored in a custom cold chamber with a window allowing visitors to view the ancient mummy up close. Ötzi has been a resident of the museum since 1998.

Discovery Of Ötzi

Snowy mountains in the Alps.
These snow-capped Alp mountains were once the stomping grounds of Ötzi.

The discovery of the frozen Iceman was one of the most remarkable in modern times. He gave historians and scientists an unprecedented glimpse into the life of prehistoric humans. Even finding him was something of an accident and entirely unexpected.

Where Was Ötzi The Iceman Found?

Ötzi was found near the border of Italy and Austria. It wasn’t archaeologists or paleontologists that recovered the natural mummy of Ötzi. Instead, it was a pair of German tourists hailing from Nuremberg. Helmut and Erika Simon were walking between mountain passes in the Ötztal Alps at 3210 m along the east ridge of the Fineilspitze when they spotted what they believed was a recently deceased mountaineer. The couple informed authorities of their find.

The following day, a mountain gendarme and a neighboring Alpine cottagekeeper returned to remove the frozen body. The remains of Ötzi were completely frozen below the torso. Even with the help of ice axes and pneumatic drills, they could not remove the body on the first day. As bad weather moved in, the men were forced to abandon their efforts at recovery. They were only able to retrieve the axe found near the iceman mummy.

Getting Ötzi Out Of The Ice

The day following this failed extraction, several mountaineers visited the site of Ötzi’s remains. Two of these visitors happened to be famous Italian mountaineers Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner. Messner gave the first indication that the body might be ancient due to the appearance and style of the axe found with him. Recovery attempts were made, but removing the frozen mummy was again delayed due to the lack of a helicopter.

A partial excavation of Ötzi was finally performed by September 22, 1991, when the mummified remains were “semi-officially” removed from the ice. There was no archeological team present, but a forensic scientist was on hand to oversee the body’s transportation. The complete excavation of Ötzi the Iceman is recorded as taking place on September 23, 1991. On that day, the mummified remains were transported by helicopter to the University of Innsbruck. Researchers at the public University in Austria soon identified Ötzi as being primeval.

The name Ötzi is a reference to the Ötzal Valley, located near where the iceman mummy was found. He is also called the Tyrolean Iceman.

As soon as the body was recovered, speculation ensued over whether the Iceman was the property of Austria or Italy. In October 1991, a survey of the land found that the body was just 101 yards inside Italian land, and therefore, Ötzi was claimed by South Tyrol, Italy. Italian officials, however, allowed researchers at Innsbruck University to complete their examination of Ötzi.

Analyzing Ötzi The Iceman

Reproduction of Oetzi the Similaun Man in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.
Reproduction of Oetzi the Similaun Man in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

Since his recovery, Ötzi the Iceman has been examined thoroughly and in several different ways. Measurements of the mummified remains have been taken, x-rays have been conducted, and tissues have been dated. Researchers have used microscopes to research the minute details of tissues, and intestinal contents have been dissected to discover more about Ötzi, how he lived, and how environmental conditions impacted the body. His ancient DNA has been analyzed at different times, offering even deeper insight into the life of that age.

The remains of Ötzi the Iceman had been covered in ice so soon after his death that only minimal deterioration of the body could be seen. As a result of this minimal deterioration, researchers discovered several interesting facts about Ötzi’s life. Pollen and dust located on Ötzi’s body, in combination with analysis of tooth enamel composition, were able to tell researchers that Ötzi spent most of his childhood in what is now the village of Feldthurns.

Additionally, this information told researchers that later in his adult life, Ötzi moved north into the valleys and away from the Feldthurns area. It is believed from analysis of Ötzi’s blackened lung tissue that he spent much time breathing in the smoke of campfires.

Ötzi’s Genetic Analysis

One thing that has had researchers obsessed since Ötzi’s finding is his genetic makeup. Several researchers came together to sequence Ötzi’s genome, which was released in a report published on February 28, 2012. Autosomal DNA analysis showed that Ötzi is most closely related to southern Europeans, more specifically, the geographically isolated populations of Corsica and Sardinia.

In September 2023, a new genetic study was done with modern techniques and comparative data. This study, published in the journal Cell Genomics, revealed new information about Ötzi, including his ancestral lineage and appearance.

One of the most notable things they learned was that the Iceman was the descendant of Anatolian farmers. He did not match the hunter-gatherer DNA of people native to the region he lived in. The DNA suggests he was the descendant of Anatolian Neolithic farmers. Over 90% of his ancestry comes from this group.

He was part of the population of Neolithic farmers who migrated from Anatolia (the area known today as Turkey). This genome also revealed that he lived an isolated life in a small community that did not intermingle much with the other populations in the area.

The newer analysis also had less contamination than the one done in 2012. It is estimated that one was contaminated with about seven percent modern DNA. The one from 2023 was cleaner due to advanced technology and handling methods. It ruled out some genetic connections to the Russian Steppe people that the earlier 2012 DNA analysis suggested due to this contamination.

Are you curious about your own DNA? You may want to consider an AncestryDNA test to find out more about your family’s genetic lineage.

Blood

One amazing factor in the method of preservation of Ötzi’s remains is that they allowed blood cells to stay intact. These cells go down in record as being the oldest known complete blood cells to ever be identified. This finding is important because these cells retained the dimensions of modern-day blood cell samples. They provide much more information about Ötzi than the shrunken cells in previous findings. Researchers were able to identify the blood as type O-positive.

What Did Ötzi Look Like?

reproduction of oetzi the similaun man ice man in the south tyrol museum of archaeology in bolzano italy jpg
Reproduction of Oetzi the Similaun Man (Ice Man) in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Trentino Alto Adige, Italy,

The Iceman was not a large man by today’s standards. He stood under six feet tall and had a slender build. Ötzi was once thought to have pale skin, a full head of hair, blue eyes, and a beard. This likeness was created using the tools and information available at the time and was associated with the Iceman until quite recently. As it turns out, this depiction was wrong.

According to the 2023 DNA analysis published in Cell Genomics, Ötzi looked quite a bit different than those renderings. DNA analysis shows that he had a much darker complexion than previously thought. He also had brown, not blue, eyes and did not have a full head of hair. Like many other 45-year-old men, the Iceman was going bald. He carried the alleles for male pattern baldness. Nor did he have plentiful facial hair.

Ötzi’s body was covered in scars. He clearly lived a rough life. His scars showed evidence of a broken nose, broken ribs, deep cuts, and more. His scars show a life of struggle and fighting to survive.

Ötzi’s hair also offered clues about the time in which he lived and his potential occupation. An analysis of the hair found traces of arsenic and copper particles. When combined with the copper axe found alongside his remains, some researchers thought he was perhaps involved in copper smelting.

Our Experience Visiting The Ötzi Museum

My wife and I had the chance to Visit the Ötzi Museum in 2012, and we were impressed. We walked through several exhibits on the way up, where we learned about everything from the tools he used to the last things they found in Ötzi’s belly. Believe it or not, scientists have discovered that he was dairy intolerant! At the very end, we happened upon the giant chamber housing Ötzi himself. I didn’t know what to expect, but when my turn came to glance through the highly dense glass back to Ötzi lying there, I got nothing but goosebumps – his body is so well preserved you can see his skin! I was absolutely mind-blown and highly recommend a visit if you are in the area.

Alex Schenker, Avid European Traveler & Editor For Safe Smart Living

The Iceman Has The World’s Oldest Tattoos

Ötzi the Iceman was no stranger to body art. He had at least 61 tattoos. These carbon tattoos could be found on both sides of the lower spine. They are displayed vertically. Most are parallel lines behind the right knee in the shape of a cruciform and numerous indistinguishable tattoos around each ankle. He also had ink on his left wrist, torso, and lower back.

The Iceman is evidence that body art and tattoos were a social practice far earlier than we ever realized. Researchers now say that Ötzi currently has the oldest tattoos known to man.

There is some belief that these markings are actually early evidence of acupuncture or acupressure-type pain relief treatments designed to ease the pain associated with his degenerating joints. Medicinal tattooing has been used in many ancient cultures to treat pain. The locations of some of the Iceman mummy’s inking suggest this, especially as they are not the decorative type.

What We Know About The Life And Death Of Ötzi

In the thirty-plus years since the Iceman’s discovery we have learned a lot. Archaeologists and researchers have discerned a good deal of information about what kind of life he lived, his health, and even what he ate. Let’s explore in further detail some of the most interesting things humanity has learned about Neolithic life.

What Did Ötzi Eat? And Where Did He Dine?

The Iceman ate a mixed diet of animal meats and plants. Amazingly, due to the incredible conservation of Ötzi’s remains, researchers determined what Ötzi ate shortly, about half an hour, before his death. Evidence of two meals was recovered. The first meal consisted of meat from a goat or antelope-type of creature called a chamois.

The second meal was made up of herb bread and red deer (ibex) meat. In addition to these mainstays, each meal was also accompanied by fruits and roots as well as grains, more specifically, einkorn wheat bran.

The food recovered from Ötzi’s stomach was not only able to tell researchers what Ötzi fed on before he died, but it was also able to tell researchers where he fed. Pollen that was recovered in the chamois remnants showed that Ötzi had eaten his meal in a conifer forest of mid-altitude. Additional pollen indicated that crops that grew native to this area included legumes and wheat. The condition of pollen that was recovered from Ötzi’s remains indicates that his death took place in the springtime.

The Lifestyle Of The Tyrolean Iceman

By taking a look at the proportions of his remains and the condition of his bones and joints, researchers have been able to determine the type of lifestyle that Ötzi led.

The proportion of Ötzi’s pelvis, femur, and tibia led researcher Christopher Ruff to believe that Ötzi spent a considerable amount of his time taking long walks over mountainous land. This finding led Ruff to believe that Ötzi may have been a shepherd rather than a copper smelter because this type of mobility was not seen commonly in other Europeans of the Copper Age.

Overall Health Of Ötzi The Iceman

The state of Ötzi’s remains was able to tell researchers quite a bit about his general health. During CT scans of his body, it could be seen that multiple ribs on his right side had been cracked post-mortem as a result of lying face down or as a result of the weight of the ice on his body.

Before his death, however, Ötzi suffered several sicknesses. These included whipworm (intestinal parasites) and multiple unidentified illnesses that left Beau’s lines on one of his fingernails. Bracken fern, one of the plants found in his stomach, was used to treat intestinal parasites.

The lines on one of the two fingernails recovered with his remains show that Ötzi had experienced three bouts of sickness in the six months preceding his death, with the last incidence being just two months before his passing.

Ötzi must also have been experiencing significant discomfort from the state of his teeth. Multiple cavities deteriorated Ötzi’s overall dental health, and it is believed that a diet concentrated in grains helped to contribute to this problem.

Ötzi’s remains showed evidence of degeneration that is consistent with age. Included in these injury sites are spondylosis and osteochondrosis of the lower spine, and degeneration of the ankle and knee joints. He also had degenerative joint disease, especially apparent in the right hip joint.

Researchers also found that Ötzi showed evidence of Lyme disease. This finding makes him the earliest known human being with evidence of the disease. DNA analysis also showed evidence of lactose intolerance and a high risk of cardiovascular disease.

Ötzi The Iceman Clothing

Clothes found with Ötzi were made from woven grasses and leather. His outfit consisted of a cloak of woven grass, a coat, leggings, a belt, a loincloth, and shoes. Numerous animals were utilized to comprise the leather items of his wardrobe. These vertical strips of leather were sewn together using sinew to construct a single solid piece.

Ötzi even had a bearskin cap that featured a leather strap that secured under his chin. Ötzi seemed to have specialized shoes designed for walking across snowy ground. They were wide and waterproof and constructed of a combination of bearskin soles, deerskin panels, and tree bark netting. Additionally, soft grass was found inside the shoes to provide sock-like cushioning for the feet.

Tools And Equipment Found With Ötzi

Ötzi carried some of his tools in his leather belt, which had a pouch sewn into it. At the time of his recovery, this belt pouch contained a drill, a flint, dried fungus, a bone awl, and a scraper. These tools would have been useful both in trade and in everyday life.

In addition to the small tools found in his belt pouch, Ötzi was found with various other tools, including a copper-bladed axe that featured a handle made from yew. Ötzi also had with him a quiver that carried fourteen arrows that had both dogwood and viburnum shafts. Two arrows had stabilizing fins and flint tips but had been broken. The remaining twelve arrows were not finished.

Alongside these arrows inside the quiver, researchers found a tool they could not name, an antler tool that is thought to have been used to sharpen flint, and a bow-string-like material. An unfinished yew longbow was also found. It measured 72 inches long. Ötzi also carried a well-worn dagger with a chert (flint-like material) blade and a wicker sheath.

Of all of his weapons and equipment, Ötzi’s axe is particularly important to researchers because it is the only prehistoric axe to be discovered to date in complete condition. The trapezoidal blade of the axe, which is made from 99.7% pure copper, is believed to have been made from casting, cold forging, polishing, and sharpening the copper. Not only would this incredible axe have been a useful tool for chopping and cutting, but it also would have made Ötzi a status symbol in his society.

Other Possessions

Ötzi also had with him several other “possessions.” These included two types of polypore mushrooms threaded onto leather strings, two birch baskets lined with maple leaves, some berries, and a fire-starting kit. That kit contained flint, pyrite, and a number of plants. One of the mushrooms found on Ötzi is known for having antibiotic properties and was likely carried for that purpose.

How Did Ötzi Die?

One huge question surrounding the Iceman was his death. How did he die? How old was Ötzi when he died? A good degree of speculation existed about the cause of Ötzi’s death upon the discovery of his remains. Some believed that he had died as a result of exposure, and others believed he was a victim of ritual sacrifice.

Is Ötzi Proof Of An Ancient Murder?

Further research into Ötzi’s remains, however, found the presence of an arrowhead in his left shoulder. It shattered his scapula, damaged blood vessels and nerves, and pierced the body near his lung. This finding led researchers to believe that blood loss would have caused Ötzi’s death. Additional research showed he was shot from behind. The shaft of the arrow had been removed before his expiration.

He likely also received a blow to the head. It is possible that this head wound– whether from a fall or an opponent – caused Ötzi’s death. A growing theory suggests his death was nefarious and that he was the victim of murder. Examination of the femur and the functional units of bone place the Iceman’s age at death at about 45 years old.

Various blood spots on his clothing indicate that he may have been traveling with tribesmen. The arrow wound could have been the result of a skirmish with a neighboring tribe. Researchers were also able to determine that Ötzi lived at least a couple of days following his injury from the presence of dried blood cells around the injury site.

Regardless of the theory, most are likely to agree that Ötzi’s death was not a solitary one, as recorded in his awkward death pose as he lay face down with his left arm across his chest. This pose indicates that Ötzi had been flipped onto his stomach as the offending arrow was removed from his shoulder.

New Theories On Ötzi

For many years after he was found, it was largely believed the Iceman had been killed near where he was found. It was thought that after his injury, he hid, died, and fell into a crevice or gully. The theory was that he was buried in the snow and stayed lodged there, not largely affected by the movement of the glaciers.

Newer archeological research was done in 2019 by a research team at the University of Glasgow. This involved an in-depth analysis of the moss, seeds, grass, leaves, and animal dung found near and within the body. It turns out some of these organic materials were younger than the body.

The New Theory

This more recent discovery led to a new theory. Archeologists now believe Ötzi died in the springtime, leaving his corpse exposed through the summer months. In fact, they now believe his body was exposed to the elements at different times over the years rather than being protected in a tomb of ice.

They also think that the Iceman died elsewhere, not the gully he was found in. His possessions were found strewn around him, not on or right next to the mummy. This clue was part of archeologists and researchers coming to a new conclusion: It is more likely he died higher up on the mountain. The movement of runoff and the ice over the years moved his body and belongings to the location where he was found.

The newer research also debunks the idea that the time of Ötzi was the start of a very cold period on the earth. Nor was his preservation miraculous. It is now known to be a completely natural process and not unique to him.

Since the discovery of the Iceman, many other bodies of humans, horses, and historic artifacts have been found in melting glaciers. One was discovered in British Columbia in 1999, Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi – “The Long Ago Person Found.” That mummy was found to be from between AD 1720 and 1850. More recently, in August 2023, Swiss hikers on the Theodul Glacier found the frozen body of a climber who had been missing since 1986.

As the planet continues to warm up, we can expect to find more history and artifacts coming out of the ice. To date, Ötzi remains the oldest human remains to be found in ice.

Disputes Over Ötzi

Unfortunately, as is often the case in the recovery of valuable artifacts, legal battles ensued following the discovery of Ötzi. According to Italian law, the original discoverers of Ötzi, the Simons, were entitled to a finder’s fee that was to be paid by the Tyrolean provincial government. The total of this fee was to amount to 25% of the total value of Ötzi.

Rather than this, the government offered the Simons compensation of 10 million lire, or around $6,500. The Simons turned down this offering and filed a lawsuit, which eventually found in their favor in 2003. As a result of this finding, the Simons requested a total amount of $300,000 USD as their finder’s fee. This request was challenged not only by the provincial government but also by two other parties who claimed that they had discovered Ötzi before the Simon’s.

In 2006, after Mr. Simon’s death, the courts confirmed that the Simons were the discoverers of Ötzi and that they were entitled to their requested fee. The provincial government claimed that it would pay only €50,000 to Mrs. Simon as a result of the costs it had incurred to preserve Ötzi, and they once again appealed the case, this time taking it to the Court of Cassation (Italy’s highest court).

In 2008, the news broke that Mrs. Simon and the provincial government had reached a settlement in which she would receive €150,000 as a discovery fee, and she would also receive the tourist income attracted by Ötzi.

Want To Learn More?

This short video with notable mummy expert Dr. Albert Zink below gives you a quick overview of the discovery of Ötzi. If you want a longer video, this documentary by PBS offers amazing insight and visuals of the Iceman and where he was found.

What Does Ötzi The Iceman Mean For Current Civilization?

Ötzi the Iceman is a fascinating discovery. While many of us are in awe of the simple discovery of this part of history, few fully understand its implications. For those involved in discovering the truth behind history and mapping out the evolution of the human race, Ötzi is much more than entertainment.

The discovery of this Chalcolithic man is a key to unlocking our own past. He is one missing piece of a puzzle that archaeologists have been reviewing for hundreds of years. Ötzi is just a step on the path toward understanding human history. However, his intact specimen provides more information than any other natural human mummy to date.

What do you find most interesting about Ötzi the Iceman? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

The World Is Full Of Mysteries And History

The Iceman mummy was an incredible find, but he is only one of the countless mysteries and incredible historical discoveries that make the world so amazing. If you want to dive into some more history, check out this article about the Giant Moai statues of Easter Island. Or, if you want to explore in person, learn more about some of the world’s most mysterious places. I also cover the Freemasons and the history of their secretive organization.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living?

Danielle is a dedicated researcher, educator, and lifelong learner. She spends countless hours researching many diverse topics to bring our readers the most recent, accurate, science-based, and data-driven information. Danielle works alongside a dedicated team of individuals who share the same goal.

Danielle DeGroot

Danielle has been a professional writer for many years, working with companies and brands all over the world. She holds a BS in Communication and Marketing from Colorado State University Global and uses her skills to help others share their voices. She has researched and covered a wide range of subjects, from eco-friendly living and burial to healthy living, technology, education, science, small business, and more. Her passion is connecting people with useful information and helping others find their voice. Prior to starting her writing career, Danielle worked in public education, where she worked to support and educate children with disabilities. She works hard to stay on top of the latest changes in safety, technology, and living, which allows her to continue researching and sharing pertinent information to better others’ lives.

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