The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

The mysterious origin of the Iceman
Maharaaj K. Koul

NO one knows who he was or what he was doing high in the Tyrolean Alps that day about 5,300 years ago, the day he died. Scientists are now certain that the Iceman, whom Austrians nicknamed ‘Oetizi’ after Oetizler Alps where he was found in September 1991, is no hoax. It is the oldest and the best-preserved frozen mummy in the world. Scientists said this finding should lay at rest lingering suspicions of a hoax. An international research team, writing in the journal Science in 1994, said the genetic findings made "the possibility of fraud highly unlikely".

So how does an over 5,000-year-old body, embedded in ice presumably no more than 500 years old, emerge intact? We do remember that the great hoax of the ‘Piltdown Man’ was not discovered until 20 years after the death of the perpetrator, a respectable and eminent paleoanthropologist, whose reputation was already so high that he had absolutely no conceivable motive to further it by lies and deceit.

However, scientists finally got the chance to confront this journalist on a television show. With all their evidence, they were able to disprove his claims. The scientists still do not know why he questioned the authenticity of the Iceman.


It all began in 1991, when Europe was experiencing an extremely warm summer, by the end of which many of the glaciers were in retreat. On September 19, a German tourist couple, descending from their hike, saw something rather strange. At first it seemed to be a plastic mannequin — some thing one does not usually come across at an altitude of 3,200 metres. Upon closer examination, it proved to be a corpse. They took a photograph — the last one left in the roll — and notified the owner of a local inn in the valley below. The innkeeper informed the Austrian and Italian police.

The corpse was located 90 metres inside the Italian territory near South Tyrol in Austria. So the Austrian police were the first to reach the site the following day. The police tried to remove the body, but since they were using a mechanised compressor-hammer, they ended up breaking off a part of the Iceman’s back.

The first problem that dogged the whole discovery was the quarrel between the two countries, Austria and Italy, as to which of them it belonged. Surveyors were called in and provided evidence to show that it had emerged from the glacier just a few metres on the Italian side, and therefore, belonged to that country. Had experts in the field of paleopathology been brought some of the many mysteries would have been solved from the start, for the discoverers claim it was embedded in ice with many large bubbles around it.

The qualified experts’ first action, therefore, would have been to carefully pierce those bubbles in the ice and extract from them samples of the air. The air everywhere in the world is plentifully supplied with pollens of an enormous range of plants. By studies of those pollens as well as analyses of the air samples, careful dating would have supplied evidence of the Oetizi’s age before the body was removed or even touched.

However, the Iceman’s body, and other artefacts found on or near it, were not removed for four days after its discovery. During this period at least 22 people, including the famous Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, visited it and some tried to remove it from the ice. Eventually, dramatically filmed by an Austrian television team, the body was manhandled and dug out of the ice by crude prodding with ice-pick and ski-poles, flown to a nearby village in a helicopter, and then driven to Insbruck in Austria.

For 24 hours, the Oetizi lay in the mortuary of the Insbruck University, where it was photographed. The site of the discovery was secured by Dr Andreas Lippert, professor of prehistoric archaeology at the Insbruck University. And in the summer of 1992 Dr Lippert returned with a team to begin excavation work. Joint investigations by Austria and Italy began two weeks after the discovery and later joined in by a 115-member international team of scientists which included anthropologists, archaeologists, zoologists, botanists and excavation experts from Austria, Italy, the US, Britain, Switzerland, Norway, Germany and Australia.

Right from the beginning, it was clear that the investigators were dealing with a prehistoric cadaver with prehistoric belongings. They had an axe, a copper dagger, and other tools and weapons which were all from the late Neolithic period. The scientists also performed over 20 radiocarbon dating tests on the bones. And all of these pointed to a precise period which was the end of the fourth millennium.

Radiocarbon dating of Oetizi’s skin and other tissues placed him at about 5,100 to 5,300 years old. Assessments of his morphological characteristics agreed with those figures and even more precisely with Bronze Age populations of South Europe of about that time. Studies of the closing of the skull sutures and the wear of the teeth place his age as anywhere between 45 and 50 years when he died, which was very old for that era. And, his height was between 1.56 and and 1.60 metres. Because of the clumsy, ill-advised messing about that accompanied the discovery and exhumation of the body, its exact position when first noticed is now unknown, but it was previously thought that he had become exhausted and eventually froze to death?

However, it was not a fall that killed the Iceman, or the cold, say investigators now. Italian researchers, funded by the Discovery Channel, are of the opinion that Oetizi was shot throught the chest with an arrow and likely died in agony. The discovery of an arrowhead embedded in the Iceman’s body, scientists said recently, resolves the mystery of how he died — an open question ever since his well-preserved corpse was discovered 10 years ago.

However, Oetizi was quite certainly mummified before becoming enclosed in the ice. And how that could have come about adds to the whole mystery of the discovery. Some scientists believe he could have been mummified — that is to say dehydrated — by a typical dry and warm wind called the ‘foehn’, which occurs in those regions in the autumn, but critics have been quick to point out the impossibility of warm winds occurring at such heights. The weapons with him are equally enigmatic. The man had with him a bow and 14 arrows, only four of which had been finished. His dagger and axe were worn by prolonged use. And the axe was found to be not of bronze, but of mere soft copper.

The Iceman’s belongings included seven articles of clothings and 20 different items of outfit. The artefacts were made of 17 types of wood and plant material used for tools, weapons, containers and fire-making. Leather used in his clothing and tools had eight species of animal skin. "What it (the find) shows clearly, is the sophistication of past technology and culture. In reality, few of us today have any of the skills, which most would have had during the Fourth Millennium", Dr Lippert said in November 1997 when he was in India to deliver lectures on "The Iceman of Tyrol". He gave a lecture at the Indira Gandhi Museum of Man in Bhopal, MP, on November 6 and another lecture at the National Museum in New Delhi on November 11.

The belt held up a leather loincloth and leggings made of animal skin had been attached to it by suspended leather strips serving as garters. For his upper torso he had a jacket, possibly sleeveless, made from alternating strips of different coloured deerskin. Completing his ensemble was an outer cape of woven grasses or reeds. A conical cap, made with the fur on the inside, was originally fastened below his chin with a strap. His feet were protected from the cold by much-repaired shoes of calf skin filled with grasses for insulation.

Ironically, the corpse was found without its clothes. His upper garments could have been removed by almost anything — the wind, animals, but the lower part of the body still had the girdle and the loincloth which was visible through the ice"?

With the Oetizi was an unfinished 180-cm long bow made of yew. Why he would be on such a journey without a serviceable bow is one of the many puzzles. A quiver made of animal skin contained 14 broken, or otherwise unserviceable arrows of viburnum and digwood, two with flint tips and some with feather fletching. The DNA tests conducted on the Iceman found him to be of Central European origin. Dr Don Brothwell, an archaeologist at the University of York, England, assigns the reasons to the Iceman being a coppersmith.

The Iceman’s body had tattoos of grinded charcoal. These tattoos were not decorative but consist primarily of parallel lines and crosses. The intestines of the Iceman contained animal bones and parasites. He had the same type of harmless threadworms in his intestines as people of today. Dr Andrew Jones and his colleagues at the Archaeological Resource Centre in York, England, analysed the parasite eggs from the Iceman’s gut.

An anthropologist reported in 1998 that the Oetizi was also providing a rare glimpse of prehistoric medicine, including his apparent use of a natural Laxative and antibiotic. Among his possessions were two walnut-size lumps with a consistency somewhere between cork and leather. Each lump was pierced and tied to a leather thong, perhaps so it could be fastened to some part of his clothing or belt.

British scientists found in the Iceman’s colon the eggs of a parasitic whipworm, ‘Trichuris trichura’. This infestation causes diarrhoea and acute stomach pains. It can also bring on anaemia, which might explain the evidence of low iron content in some of the mummy’s muscles.

There are many aspects to the Iceman’s origin — physical, cultural, topographical — says Dr Lippert. By studying the plant remains on his clothes, botanists have been able to determine that he died in the same area as he was found and his village or homestead may have been no more than a few km away. His stature and body size also indicate that he belonged to this culture.

The era he lived in, that is, the end of the Fourth Millennium and the beginning of the Third Millennium, was most fascinating. The Indo-European languages were just about to make their way into the continent. Many innovations and inventions took place at that time — the wheel, the plough, the animal-drawn wagons, drainage systems — and it was an era of mass migrations.

While everything imaginable done to the ancient find in the first place was misguided and has resulted in much confusion and the permanent, irreversible destruction of much valuable information, it was not long before people in charge of the Iceman realised his cash value and employed a team of lawyers to negotiate with the media. Even this was manhandled, for it is reported that while the lawyers changed the Insbruck University as much as the equivalent of Rs 1,07,16,000 they turned down very substantial offers from television and publishing companies so that more in sorrow than in anger the Rector of the University was heard sighing that the Iceman costs us so much more than we can afford, without so far bringing us in anything, I am tempted to get a shovel and bury him again.

Originally the mummy was kept in the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Insbruck. Now it has been placed in a specially refrigerated cell at the newly renovated South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Bolzano, Italy, since March 28, 1998. In the beginning there were many problems because scientists had to stimulate the conditions of the glacier where it was found.

This discovery is like a snapshot of a moment in the Neolithic Age, says Dr Lippert. The Oetizi is like a time machine that takes us back to his period. We see him as he lived, with his belongings and tools all intact. And, it is our connection with a very distant past.