Out from the Ice

by Dale H. Easley
Department of Natural and Applied Sciences
University of Dubuque


In the summer of 1999, I taught geology in Innsbruck with the UNO program. Shortly before I arrived, one of Innsbruck's most celebrated guests departed for Italy. Oetzi had arrived naked in 1991. 1991 had a particularly hot summer, and Oetzi's was the 7th body to melt out of the ice of Alpine glaciers. Hikers discovered his body and reported it. A policeman was dispatched to inspect it. His initial response was to treat the body like just another hiker that had to be jack-hammered out of the ice. However, he couldn't get the job done, so the body lay for another four days while other people came and collected some of his clothing and tools. Finally, an Austrian doctor led a team that got Oetzi free of the ice. Unfortunately, the five days spent getting Oetzi out did more damage to him than the 5,300 years he lay frozen.

Yes, 5,300 years. Oetzi is the oldest mummified human ever found, almost 2,000 years older than King Tut. Oetzi was about 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighed about 110 lbs, and was probably between 40 and 53 years old. As he was being extracted from the ice, under him was found a copper axe, dating him to the Copper Age. He wore animal skins, shoes lined on the inside with grass, and a grass cape. He carried an unfinished yew bow, arrows in a quiver, a flint knife, a leather pouch, and a wooden frame possible used as a backpack. His internal organs were preserved. He seemed to have been fairly fit despite arthritis in the neck, lower back, and one hip, plus broken ribs, calcium deposits indicating heart disease, and a fractured jaw. He was carrying a bit of food---a sloeberry, some mushrooms, and a few gnawed ibex bones. Recent isotopic work indicates that he was a vegetarian, at least for part of the time leading up to his death.

Most bodies coming out of glaciers are fairly ground up and decayed. That Oetzi was so well preserved was a fluke. Apparently Oetzi was walking across the Alps near what is now the Austrian-Italian border. He grew tired or sick or took refuge from a storm. Whatever the case, he lay down in a natural rocky crevice, never to rise again1. If Oetzi had been exposed for long, animals would have destroyed his carcasse. However, snow quickly buried him, freezing his body for centuries to come. As the Alpine glacier formed on top of him and began its grinding flow downhill, the shallow depression in which his body lay protected him.

What was Oetzi doing up in Alps? Perhaps he was hunting ibex or herding sheep. Or maybe he was fleeing danger. The broken bones, especially his jaw, may indicate a violent conflict. The unfinished yew bow was cut from trees that grew lower down the mountain. Grains of wheat and corn in his belongings indicate that he had been in an agricultural area. The ripe sloeberry indicates the time of year was let summer or autumn. Konrad Spindler of the University of Innsbruck has guessed that Oetzi was a herder who came down from the mountains and got caught up in some conflict such as a raid from a neighboring valley. He escaped back up the mountains, only to die from exhaustion and the early snowstorm. Perhaps. Oetzi's past remains a mystery.

When Oetzi was discovered, some speculated that he was a hoax, a mummy from somewhere else placed into the ice to mislead scientists. However, DNA analysis of Oetzi shows that he was of European descent. Though the Austrians originally recovered and claimed his body, a careful survey of the border showed that he was slightly on the Italian side. When Oetzi left Innsbruck in January, 1999, it was for Bolzano, Italy. There he is on display in a climate-controlled case in a darkened room in his own museum.

1 Recent evidence by researchers in Balzano, Italy, indicates that the Iceman died from an arrow shot to the shoulder.

For more information, go to the UNO library web site.
Use Infotrac (Expanded Academic ASAP) and search for Iceman.

File translated from TEX by T TH, version 2.72.
On 26 Jul 2000, 11:01.