Otzi the Iceman

Otzi the Iceman, also called Similaun Man, Hauslabjoch Man or even Frozen Fritz, was discovered in 1991, eroding out of a glacier in the Italian Alps near the border between Italy and Austria.

The human remains are of a Late Neolithic or Chalcolithic man who was died between about 3350-3300 BC. Because he ended up in a crevasse, his body was perfectly preserved by the glacier in which he was found, rather than crushed by the glacier's movements in the last 5,000 years.

The remarkable level of preservation has allowed archaeologists the first detailed look into clothing, behavior, tool use and diet of the period.

So Who Was Otzi the Iceman?

The Iceman stood about 158 cm (5'2") tall, and weighed about 61 kg (134 lbs). He was rather short compared to most European males of the time, but sturdily built. He was in his mid-40s, and his strong leg muscles and overall fitness suggest that he may have spent his life herding sheep and goats up and down the Tyrolean Alps. He died about 5200 years ago, in the late spring. His health was fair for the period--he had arthritis in his joints and he had whipworm, which would have been quite painful.

Otzi had several tattoos on his body, including a cross on the inside of his left knee; six parallel straight lines arranged in two rows on his back above his kidneys, each about 6 inches long; and several parallel lines on his ankles. Some have argued that tattooing may have been some sort of acupuncture.

The Iceman's Clothing and Equipment

The Iceman carried a range of tools, weapons, and containers. An animal skin quiver contained arrow-shafts made of viburnum and hazel wood, sinews and spare points. A copper ax head with a yew haft and leather binding, a small flint knife and a pouch with a flint scraper and awl were all included in the artifacts found with him. He carried a yew bow, and researchers at first thought the man had been a hunter-gatherer by trade, but additional evidence makes it clear he was a pastoralist--a Neolithic herder.

Otzi's clothing included a belt, loincloth, and goat-skin leggings with suspenders, not unlike lederhosen. He wore a bear-skin cap, outer cape and coat made of woven grass and moccasin-type shoes made from deer and bear leather. He stuffed those shoes with moss and grasses, no doubt for insulation and comfort.

Iceman's Last Days

Otzi's stable isotopic signature suggests that he was probably born near the confluence of the Eisack and Rienz rivers of Italy, near where the town of Brixen is today, but that as an adult, he lived in the lower Vinschgau valley, not far from where he was eventually found.

The Iceman's stomach held cultivated wheat, possibly consumed as bread; game meat, and dried sloe plums. Blood traces on the stone arrow points he carried with him are from four different people, suggesting he had participated in a fight for his life.

Further analysis of the contents of his stomach and intestines have allowed researchers to describe his last two to three days as both hectic and violent. During this time he spent time in the high pastures of the Otzal valley, then walked down to the village in the Vinschgau valley. There he was involved in a violent confrontation, sustaining a deep cut on his hand. He fled back into the Tisenjoch ridge where he died.

Death of an Iceman

Before Otzi died, he had suffered two fairly serious wounds, in addition to a blow to the head. One was to his right palm, a deep cut that occurred between 3 and 8 days before his death. The other was a wound in his left shoulder. In 2001, conventional x-rays and computed tomography revealed a stone arrowhead embedded in that shoulder.

A research team led by Frank Jakobus Rühli at the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich used multislice computed tomography, a non-invasive computer scanning process used in detecting heart disease, to examine Otzi's body. They discovered a 13-mm tear in an artery within the Iceman's torso. Otzi appears to have suffered massive bleeding as a result of the tear, which eventually killed him.

Researchers believe that the Iceman was sitting in an semi-upright position when he died. Around the time he died, someone pulled the arrow shaft out of Otzi's body, leaving the arrowhead still embedded in his chest.

Otzi 2011

Two reports, one in Antiquity and one in the Journal of Archaeological Science, were published in the Fall of 2011. Groenman-van Waateringe reported that pollen from Ostrya carpinfolia (hop hornbeam) found in Otzi's gut likely represented the use of hop hornbeam bark as a medication. Ethnographic and historical pharmacological data lists several medicinal uses for hop hornbeam, with painkilling, gastric problems and nausea as some of treated symptoms.

Gostner et al. reported detailed analysis of radiological studies on the Iceman. The Iceman was x-rayed and examined using computer tomography in 2001, and using multi-slice CT in 2005. These tests revealed that Otzi had had a full meal shortly before his death, suggesting that although he may have been chased through the mountains during the last day of his life, he was able to stop and have a full meal consisting of ibex and deer meat, sloe plums and wheat bread. In addition, he lived a life that included strenuous walking in high altitudes, and suffered from knee pain.

Otzi as Burial?

In 2010, Vanzetti and colleagues argued that, despite earlier interpretations, it is possible that Otzi's remains represent an intentional, ceremonial burial. Most scholars have agreed that Otzi was the victim of an accident or a murder, and that he died on the mountain top where he was discovered.

Vanzetti and colleagues based their interpretations of Otzi as a formal burial on the placement of objects around Otzi's body, the presence of unfinished weaponry, and the mat, which they argue was a funeral shroud. Other scholars (Carancini et al and Fasolo et al) have supported that interpretation.

A gallery in the journal Antiquity, however, disagree, stating that forensic, taphonomic and botanical evidence supports the original interpretation.

See The Iceman is Not a Burial discussion in Antiquity, the three responses to Vanzetti and colleagues are free, online texts.
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