Cold warrior? A pathologist probes a perhaps fatal wound near the putative arrowhead.

For Ice Man, the Band Plays On

BOLZANO, ITALY--Researchers threw a grand bash here last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Tyrolean Ice Man's famous emergence from an Alpine glacier. But instead of giving Europe's oldest mummified human a cake with 5310 candles, they feted him with new insights into his origins as well as plans to compare his desiccated remains with those of South American mummies.

Ever since he was found in 1991, the Ice Man--nicknamed Ötzi by the Austrians because he was found in the Ötztaler Alps--has been scrutinized by scientists. Perhaps the most sensational find came just two months ago: Computed tomography scans revealed what appears to be an arrowhead lodged in the Ice Man's left shoulder, suggesting that he may have been a victim of foul play (ScienceNOW, 26 July).

A decade of work has painted a clearer picture of the Ice Man's roots. For starters, scientists have roughly located his home turf. The ratio of strontium-87 to strontium-86 in his tooth enamel indicates that he grew up eating plants grown on soils derived from gneiss and schist, the same kind of soil found in the South Tyrol region of Italy--and unlike Austria's limestone-based soils, says geochemist Wolfgang Müller of the Australian National University in Canberra. In addition, preliminary analyses of oxygen isotopes suggest that Ötzi lived at a higher altitude as an adult, Müller says. This fits with the idea that he came from Juval, a Copper Age site in South Tyrol.

Ongoing projects aim to examine how and where the Ice Man's copper ax was made; biopsy his prostate to learn about cancer in prehistory; and possibly try again to amplify his Y chromosomal DNA after one failed attempt. (This may contain clues to the spread of ancestral populations across Europe.) Some scientists also would like to dissect his shoulder to inspect the putative arrowhead.

Ice Man researchers have forged new bonds with archaeologists who study Peruvian mummies. At the meeting, Horst Seidler, scientific director of the Ice Man project, announced a collaboration with the Leymebamba Museum in remote north central Peru. The museum houses about 220 16th century mummies from the Chachapoya tribe. Lessons gleaned from the Ice Man can be applied to help preserve the tissue of these mummies, Seidler says, as well as boost investigations into the genetic and cultural heritage of modern Peruvians.

Related site

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, home of the Ice Man

Posted in Archaeology