Ice Man Warms Up for Scientists

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

After spending about 45 million hours in a deep freeze, Italy's "Ice Man" was thawed for 4 hours earlier this week in an Italian museum to allow scientists to snip out bits of bone, teeth, skin, and fat. Scientists hope that turning up the heat on the famous emissary from Neolithic Europe could help solve such lingering puzzles as his kin and cause of death.

The 5200-year-old mummy, known as Ötzi, was hacked from a glacier in the Ötztaler Alps in 1991 and currently resides in a refrigerated room with a peephole for viewing in the South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy (InScight, 3 April 1998). Ötzi has already provided researchers with a breathtaking view of life in his era. He carried a copper ax--a precious object indicating a high social rank, perhaps that of clan chieftain--and wore a waterproof grass cape much like those used by Alpine shepherds as late as the 19th century. Tattoos on his back and legs suggest that he practiced acupuncture--some 2 millennia before the therapy occurs in Chinese records (Science, 9 October 1998, p. 242).

On 25 September, a team of forensic scientists from the University of Verona, Italy, and the University of Glasgow, U.K., reexamined the body for signs of trauma. Their work in the months to come is aimed at answering one major question, namely, how he died. One hypothesis is that he simply fell asleep, exhausted, and froze. But Ötzi also had a few broken ribs, hinting at an accident. Damaged tissue in Ötzi's brain suggests a third hypothesis--a stroke. An effort to test this idea could get under way next year, says anthropologist Horst Seidler of the University of Vienna, who chaired the committee that selected the current projects. He's involved in a project to begin next year that will examine the timing of Ötzi's rib injuries.

Another key project seeks to clarify Ötzi's roots. In 1994, a mitochondrial DNA study showed that his genetic stock most closely matches that of modern central and northern Europeans (Science, 17 June 1994, p. 1775). Two Italian groups hope to extract better DNA samples from bone and narrow Ötzi's ancestry in hopes of learning more about migration patterns in Neolithic Europe. Complementing the DNA studies is an effort to analyze the strontium isotopes in Ötzi's tooth enamel. Comparing the isotopic ratio with samples from 5200-year-old geologic layers in the region can help pinpoint where Ötzi lived.

Related sites
The South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology
Ötzi's last journey

Posted in Paleontology, Archaeology