On September 19, 1991, German tourists Helmut and Erika Simon were hiking in the Öttzal Alps along the Italian-Austrian border when they came across a sight that would help define human history. Walking off-path, the pair came across a corpse they believed to be of a recently deceased mountaineer. Little did they know, they had stumbled upon the nearly five-thousand-year-old mummified body of what would soon become known as “Ötzi the Iceman” or, more simply, Ötzi.
Three days after the discovery, Ötzi was removed from his icy tomb and moved to nearby Innsbruck University, where his corpse would be extensively examined, x-rayed, and dated for years to come. Thanks to the location of his death and the ice in which the corpse was encased for thousands of years, Ötzi’s relative lack of decomposition made him an ideal subject for study.
Using modern technology and research methods, researchers have surmised that Ötzi was roughly five-foot-three and around one-hundred-and-ten pounds when he died, around age forty-five. After analyzing pollen, dust grains and the isotopic compound of his tooth enamel, it was theorized that Ötzi spent his childhood near the current village of Feldthurns in South Tyrol. Later in life, he may have lived upwards of fifty kilometers north of where he grew up.
Analysis of his stomach found traces of ibex meat, suggesting that he had a meal less than two hours before his death. Additionally, scientists discovered chamois and red deer meat, herb bread, roots and fruit in Ötzi’s stomach. Examination of his hair offered deeper insight into the regular diet of Ötzi and people of his era. The presence of wheat and legumes, both domesticated crops, and their state of degeneration led scientists to place the time of Ötzi’s death around spring or early summer.
Thanks to copper particles found in Ötzi’s hair, along with a copper axe blade found nearby, led scientists to believe that Ötzi was involved with copper smelting. However, this claim was disputed after an examination of his leg bones proved Ötzi was subject to long walks over hilly terrain, possibly proving that he was a shepherd of some kind.
Upon examining his skin, researchers discovered that Ötzi had sixty-one tattoos, which are believed to be related to some sort of pain treatment similar to acupuncture.
For a decade after his discovery, researchers were unsure of Ötzi’s cause of death. Initially believed to have died from exposure, scientists later speculated that it was more likely Ötzi was the subject of ritual sacrifice. In 2001, x-rays and a CT scan revealed an arrowhead lodged in Ötzi’s shoulder along with a matching tear in his coat. Further research found trauma, bruises and cuts on his hands, wrists, chest and head. Recent DNA analysis revealed blood from at least four other people on Ötzi’s gear.
Whatever the cause of death, contents of his stomach or genetic makeup of his hair, Ötzi has provided a window into human history like no other discovery before or since.