otzi 1

This partially mummified man goes by a number of nicknames–for we have no idea what his real name was–but the most common is “Ötzi.” He’s the “Iceman” of the Alps, a frozen corpse discovered high in the Ötzal Alps on the border of Italy and Austria. He was found on the Italian side, but was discovered by two German tourists in September 1991. Happening upon a corpse sticking out of a melting glacier, they thought he was a mountain climber who’d met with an unfortunate accident. When the authorities arrived and tried to pull the dead man out of the icy puddle in which he was entombed, they suddenly realized he’d been there for a lot longer than that. Indeed it seems Ötzi lived and died about 3300 BCE, some 5,300 years ago.

The scientific analysis of Ötzi’s body, as well as his clothing and the various tools found with him, have told us a great deal about his life. We know, for instance, what his last meal was, deer meat and wheat bread. The pollens on the food indicated that he’d been in a high-altitude forest when he ate the food. There were several wounds on the body, including a wound from an arrow in his shoulder. He was also carrying a flint knife and a copper-headed axe of substantial craftsmanship. He seems to have been with other people before he died, because blood found on his clothes and weapons did not match his. There are various theories as to what happened to him, but the most plausible is that he was a warrior of some kind, on a raid, perhaps to an enemy village. He may have been wounded in a skirmish and died while someone else was trying to carry him away to safety. It’s also possible that he was reburied later on the spot where he would be found more than 5,000 years later.

otzi 2

Ötzi as he was found in September 1991. This is not a comfortable position in which to spend 5,000 years.

The discovery of Ötzi proved to be a huge windfall for historians, anthropologists and even medical researchers. His diet and weapons have indicated many things we didn’t know, or didn’t know for sure, about human societies in prehistoric central Europe, such as whether they had organized agriculture (they seemed to), metalworking and weapons-making techniques (they did), and some hint of ceremonial accouterments–Ötzi, for example, had several tattoos that have not really been explained. His genetic code has a lot more in common with Neanderthals than modern humans do, but despite this, surprisingly modern researchers have discovered 19 people living in the Austrian province of Tyrol who are probably related to him. He may have been a shepherd, but certainly he was accustomed to living and working in the high mountain altitudes. As science and technology continue to advance we may learn even more about Ötzi, who he was and what his life may have been like. It’s pretty exciting to have a window like this into the very distant past.

Regardless of what kind of person Ötzi was in 3300 BCE, the simple fact of his miraculous preservation into our modern age qualifies him as one of the most interesting people in early European history. It’s also tempting to imagine what other specimens of early humanity might still lie undiscovered in the frozen reaches of the world, and what they too can tell us about the past.

The photos of Ötzi are copyrighted. The photo at the top of this article is copyright (C) the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. The photo of Ötzi as he was discovered is copyright (C) 1991 by Helmut Simon. I believe my inclusion of these photos here constitutes fair use under applicable copyright laws.