Stumbling upon the past Science

Meet Ötzi, the Iceman

Twenty four years ago, German tourists Erika and Helmut Simons were out hiking in the Ötztal Alps in the month of September. If they hadn’t decided to take a shortcut on their way down from the Finail Peak close to the Austrian-Italian border, we might have never discovered the Iceman.

On September 19, 1991, they stumbled upon a human corpse trapped in the ice, with only the head, shoulders and back exposed. The natural assumption was that it was the decomposing remains of a mountaineering accident and they tipped off the relevant authorities.

Bad weather meant that it took a few more days to extract the remains. Using ice picks, ski poles and small jackhammers, the corpse was extracted and packed in a body bag along with a number of other items that were found alongside.

Hustled off to a morgue and then to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, it was only then that they realised that this was no ordinary corpse.

Oldest frozen corpse

Archaeologist Konrad Spindler, Professor of Early and Ancient History at Innsbruck University, inspected the corpse and the remains and dated the find to be “at least 4000 years old.” Further tests, which included C14 carbon dating, put a much better estimate on when the Iceman lived - between 3350 BC and 3100 BC, making it over 5000 years old, among the oldest frozen corpses ever to have been discovered.

  Karl Wendl, a Viennese reporter, might share his first name with another Austrian Karl Koller (the ophthalmologist who introduced cocaine as a local anaesthetic), but his claim to fame is much more simpler. In one of his articles about the Iceman, he coined the name “Ötzi” (in reference to the adjoining Ötz Valley near which he was found) and the name stuck.

A window into the past

It is believed that Ötzi has been so well preserved owing to the fact that he must have been covered by snow shortly after the death, and then by ice. Add to it the circumstances under which the German couple had discovered him - shortly after ice around him had thawed - and it meant that he wasn’t exposed to sunlight and wind for too long.

The presence of the glacier allowed his body and possessions to remain intact.

His cells maintained their humidity and hence Ötzi’s remains is sometimes called a “wet mummy”, enabling scientists to examine him over 5000 years later as the body tissues were still relatively elastic.

Evidence and studies have suggested that Ötzi was around 45 years old at the time of his death, about 160 cm tall and weighing around 40 kg. Levels of copper particles and traces of arsenic have enabled us to picture Ötzi as a metal smelter, though his bone structure, clothing and equipments suggest that he could have been a shepherd held in high regard.

Beau’s Lines (lines running horizontally from side to side that are deeply grooved on the finger or toe nails) from just one nail found at the scene indicate that Ötzi had been ill approximately 8 weeks, 13 weeks and 16 weeks before his death.

An unhealed hand wound confirms a combat in the last few days of his life. And even though the exact scene hasn’t been reconstructed, a foreign object in Ötzi’s shoulder was revealed to be a flint arrowhead, and it is believed to have caused Ötzi to bleed to death.

DNA tests in 2013 revealed that Ötzi’s descendants are living to this day in Austria. Though Ötzi himself, or what remains of him, is now on display at South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy, as the place of discovery fell within their borders.

Write to the author at

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 1:18:17 PM |

Next Story