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Scientists continue to make new discoveries about the life and death of a 5,300-year-old iceman

Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on March 26, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio
Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Thursday at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.

Otzi was walking in the Alps, near where he lived, when he was shot and killed. The 5-foot-3-inch man had brown hair and brown eyes. He had several tattoos. He walked a lot in the mountains. But Otzi isn’t his real name — it’s a nickname. He’s also about 5,300 years old.

Commonly known as “the iceman,” Otzi is a “natural mummy.”

“He was mummified because his body was dislocated very quickly and he was covered with ice and snow and that kept his body from decaying,” Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy, told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday.

“The particular thing is that he was not found alone, but he was found with all his equipment and his clothing,” Zink said.

At the time of Otzi’s death, Europe was in the Copper Age. It was a time, between 3500 B.C. and 2300 B.C., when humans were discovering metal could be used for tools, weapons and jewelry, and ushered in social change. Otzi died around 3500 B.C.

But his wasn’t a natural death: Otzi was killed.  

“We know he was killed actually in the mountains. He was shot with an arrow from behind,” Zink said. “We still have the arrowhead in his body. We found out that he must have died there on the spot in the mountains.”

Otzi was carrying arrows as well, but of the 20 he had, only two were ready to be shot. He also was in the process of making a new bow — his old one was broken.

When Otzi was discovered in 1991, no one knew how old he was or how important the discovery was, Zink said. The iceman is now preserved in a refrigeration cell with conditions similar to those of where he was found. The body was well preserved because it was covered by thick ice and snow, then dried out by the sun and heavy winds before being covered again.

The body has shrunk over time, and Otzi’s skin is darker than it would have been 5,000 years ago, but all of his organs are intact.

Mummies are typically associated with Egypt because of intentional preservation practices that were carried out there. But natural mummies have been found all over the world, Zink said.

By studying Otzi’s body, scientists have discovered that he didn’t smoke; he was lactose intolerant; he had gallstones; he had Lyme disease, arthritis and atherosclerosis; he walked a lot and was probably a tradesman or otherwise important person in his village or region.

Some of those things are important to know today, Zink said. For example, atherosclerosis is the build-up of fats and cholesterol in arteries. But Otzi was a nonsmoker who walked a lot, so it wasn’t caused by his lifestyle. He had a strong genetic tendency for atherosclerosis, which can help today’s scientists better understand what’s genetic and what’s caused by other factors.

“I think it gives us more of a general understanding of diseases,” Zink said.

Zink said he believes Otzi’s 61 tattoos may have been part of a medical treatment, although that’s difficult to prove. The tattoos, often two horizontal lines, are “everywhere he suffered from, at least time to time, pain,” Zink said. A new tattoo recently was found on Otzi’s chest, Zink said.

For everything that is known about Otzi, there’s more to discover, Zink said. “We still have some work to do,” Zink said. There also are many things that will never be known: Was he a good guy who was killed in the mountains? Or was he something else? That’s one secret Otzi took to the grave.

Related event

From Tutankhamun to Otzi: The Scientific Study of Human Mummies

  • When: 7 p.m. Monday, March 30, 2015; a reception starts at 6:30 p.m.
  • Where: J.C. Penney Auditorium, University of Missouri–St. Louis

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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