When one thinks of mummies, the two kinds that come to mind are the intentionally and artificially preserved corpses found in Egyptian tombs, or the naturally dried corpses found in South America. One man has a category all his own … frozen, naturally preserved mummy. That man is Ötzi the Iceman – whose mummified frozen remains were found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps (hence his nickname) on the border between Austria and Italy. By being both mummified and frozen, Ötzi was easy to date – he lived between 3350 and 3105 BCE – and a treasure trove for researchers because his remains were quick-frozen shortly after he died and he remained frozen solid ever since. Or did he? A new study 30 years after he was found claims Ötzi died somewhere else in the Ötztal Alps, was moved by a glacier, and thawed and refroze several times. How did he manage to survive all of that?
“Thus, when Ötzi appeared, he was an unexpected find for the archaeological community. From the start, it was believed that he was a unique find, preserved by special circumstances. The melt of the ice at the findspot and elsewhere in the Alps that summer was linked to an unusually warm summer and an influx of dust from the Sahara, which fell on the snow.”
In “Ötzi, 30 years on: A reappraisal of the depositional and post-depositional history of the find,” published recently in The Holocene, Lars Pilø, a glacial archaeologist and lead author from the Department of Cultural Heritage in Norway, remembers the excitement felt around the world when the mummified remains were found poking out of the melting ice by German hikers in the Ötztal Alps. Ötzi’s body was so intact, the archeologists who examined him initially believed his body had freeze dried soon after his death and was then encased in solid ice beneath a glacier nestled in a gully where it was unable to move – putting Ötzi in a natural freezer whose door was never opened or contents moved about for thousands of years. Since nothing like this had ever been discovered before, Ötzi was considered to be special and a unique specimen. As such, his body, clothing and artifacts became a snapshot of life in the Ötztal Alps 5,300 years ago.
"His leather and fur gear reveal that he came from a people whose dining and grooming habits were quite varied. They were not content with just a few domesticated species; they hunted for other kinds of game when it suited them. And Ötzi, at least, was repairing his clothing as much as possible—so leather was obviously valuable enough that it was re-used."
An article in Ars Technica at the time of the discovery illustrates what such quick preservation of Ötzi’s body revealed to researchers. His stone tools - a dagger, an end-scraper for working hides and wood, a borer, a sharp stone flake used for cutting plants, and a pair of arrowheads – were well-worn and well-maintained, showing he had sharpened and retouched them before he died. The contents of his stomach showed his last meal included red deer, wild goat, whole-grain einkorn wheat and possibly some toxic ferns. His skin showed 61 tattoos - mostly lines. CT scans of his interior organs and skeleton showed an intestinal parasite and ribs broken after his death from the ice. His teeth had cavities and Ötzi was lactose intolerant. The most shocking discovery was that he had an arrowhead embedded in his left shoulder and various other wounds which indicated he was murdered. Ötzi’s tragic demise was made more personal when the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy , used 3D scanning technology to recreate his face – showing deep-set brown eyes, a beard, a furrowed face, and sunken cheeks. (See it here.) Did his face show that he knew what was going to happen?
“The story is so at odds with how glacial archaeological sites work.”
All of this was exciting news and most archeologists felt they would never again find such a well-preserved frozen mummy like Ötzi. However, Lars Pilø was not one of them. He and others suspected that Ötzi’s manner of preservation was not a series of extraordinary circumstances … which meant more like him could be found. Over the decades, the science of glacial archeology has improved immensely – partly and unfortunately because climate change has cause so much melting and exposure … a factor we now know was a factor in the discovery of Ötzi. Instead of focusing on the mummy, Pilø tells Gizmodo he looked at the glacier he was frozen in and found that the bottom of the gully where he was thought to have died was covered with organic material -- moss, grass, leaves, needles, animal dung, etc. – that radiocarbon dating showed to be younger than Ötzi … which would have been impossible if the glazier and the mummy never moved from the gully.
However, it was his clothing that ultimately proved the mummy was an unhappy wanderer … and had thawed multiple times. Parts of his fur cape, shoes and hat were better preserved, while the skin on the back of the head had flaked off to reveal cranial bone. That was the part of his body sticking out of the ice when the hikers found it.
"Tellingly, this is the highest point of the mummy. This evidence strongly suggests that the upper part of the body was exposed on several occasions prior to the 1991 discovery. How many times such exposures happened and how long they lasted is difficult to ascertain based on the available evidence."
The study postulates that Ötzi died not in the winter in the gully but in the spring or summer at or near the top of the mountain, where his body remained in the snow. When that began to melt, the mummy slid down into the gully, along with the organic matter around it, and became covered by a non-moving field of "cold ice." Ötzi and his stuff laid there and were periodically thawed and refrozen for 1,500 years, until the gully was finally covered with a permanent layer of unmovable ice – where Ötzi remained for 3,800 years until global warming caused him to pop back out once more.
If Ötzi’s body could remain mummified and in good condition even after repeated movements and thawing over thousands of year, so could others – which is the conclusion reached by Pilo and his colleagues.
“In addition, the find circumstances of Ötzi are quite normal for glacial archaeology. The chances of finding another prehistoric human body, in a similar topographical setting as the Tisenjoch, should therefore be higher than previously believed, since a string of special circumstances is not needed for the preservation of this type of find, and relevant locations are now affected by heavy melt events.”
Nonetheless, Ötzi is still special because he was the first and we know what he looked like. One of these days he’ll be reunited with some friends. While it doesn’t justify it, these discoveries could only be made because of climate change. Perhaps we need to update Ötzi’s 3D image with a single tear.