Őtzi: Uncovering the Iceman

In September of 1991 two hikers in the Őtzal Alps near South Tyrol, Italy came across the frozen body of a man. Although the hikers first suspected that it was the body of someone who had recently died, it turned out to be the corpse of a man who had been frozen in that spot for thousands of years. The frozen was given the nickname Őtzi because of the region where it was discovered, although he also became known as the Iceman. Researchers believe that Őtzi is over 5000 years old, and that he lived during the Neolithic period known as the Copper Age. Because his body was so well-preserved in the ice and snow, scientists have been able to learn many things about how he lived, and even about how he died.

            Although the elements eventually stripped away all of Őtzi’s hair, some of his hairs were found stuck in his clothing, and researchers have been able to determine that he had short, dark, curly hair that had been recently trimmed prior to his death (Conklin, 2005, p.137). Some of Őtzi’s clothes were damaged or destroyed during the process of removing him from the ice, but the remnants of what was destroyed as well as the articles of clothing that were preserved offered many clues about his life. Őtzi appeared to be well-prepared for traveling, as he was wearing soft leather shoes and a jacket made of leather or animal hide (Conklin, p.137). He had been carrying some sort of large backpack, though it had been damaged over the centuries, so it is not clear what was inside it, although it does offer evidence that Őtzi was traveling for some purpose (Conklin, p.137).

            Őtzi was wearing a small leather pouch that contained several items, such as pieces of flint, some unfinished arrowheads, grass string, and a hole punch or awl that may have been used for sewing leather (, n.d.). In addition to the items in the pouch, Őtzi was carrying a large bow that had not been strung yet, a flint knife in a grass sheath, and a copper axe. Although the people who have studied Őtzi have used a number of different techniques to determine how old he is and to learn about his health and his way of life, the copper axe offers some clues. Őtzi was alive in the period known as the Copper Age, but in the typical settlement that people from that period often lived, it would not have been common for everyone to have copper axes or other tools (Conklin, p.135). Some researchers believe that this axe is evidence that Őtzi was an important person, and may have been a shaman, a medicine man, or some other significant figure among his people (Hales, 2000, p.86). Along with the items of clothing and tools that were found with Őtzi, researchers also found several different types of food, such as pieces of animal meat and pieces of plum or some other form of fruit. The presence of the fruit may indicate that Őtzi died in autumn, when the growing season had ended but fresh fruit was still available (Hales, p.86).

            There were a number of areas that had been settled in the region between what is now Switzerland and Italy, and the people of this period usually lived by farming and hunting. Agriculture would not have been particularly advanced, but archaeologists have found evidence that people raised sheep and goats, planted grains and other crops, and had carts with wheels and other basic farming tools. These people had the capacity to cook and to bake bread, and there was evidence that Őtzi ate a significant amount of grains in his life, as the grains had worn down his teeth (, n.d.).

            Researchers used a number of scientific techniques to study Őtzi. Although the existence of his axe made it clear right away that he was at least several thousand years old, it was not until Carbon-14 dating techniques were used that it was possible to make a fairly accurate assessment of his age. The results of the test showed that Őtzi had lived sometime between 3350 and 3100 B.C., and had been trapped in that spot for over 5,000 years (, n.d.). Other studies of his internal organs showed that he still had food in his system when he died, meaning that he had eaten recently, and that he showed signs of parasitic infections (Conklin, p.138). Some of the plants and food items Őtzi had with him may have been intended for use as medicine to fight symptoms of parasites.

            X-rays of Őtzi’s body showed a number of interesting things, including the fact that he had signs of arthritis in his hips, knees, and ankles. The most significant find uncovered by the X-rays, however, was the presence of a small flint spearhead or arrowhead embedded below his left shoulder (Gay and Whittington, 2002, p.20). The discovery of this spearhead has led researchers to believe that Őtzi may have been attacked while traveling, and that his death was a result of blood loss (Gay and Whittington, p.20). It is unlikely that it will ever be known for certain how Őtzi died, but this theory seems as plausible as any other possibility. Other tests and studies have determined that Őtzi was approximately 45 years old at the time of his death, which would have been a relatively old age for a man of his era.

            It is not known exactly which culture Őtzi lived in, though there were several different cultures scattered throughout the region that had developed the use of stone and metal tools and the ability to make ceramics. The museum exhibit featuring Őtzi’s body also makes information available about how he and people from his time lived. The cultures from this time and place are described as “cults of the dead,” and funeral ceremonies, burial rituals, and graves were all central parts of the culture (, n.d.). Őtzi’s people buried important items with the dead, such as weapons and tools, so that the spirits of the dead would be prepared for the afterlife. Some people of this time buried bodies in mass graves, and others built stone crypts. The graves of the dead would be visited for prayers and rituals on a regular basis. Őtzi had a number of tattoos on his back and legs, which may have been put there as part of some sort of religious ceremony, or in the belief that they would help with the pain of the arthritis he had in those areas (Gay and Whittington, p.21).

            The settlements and communities of the Copper Age had other ceremonial sites besides graves, and religion was a central part of life for people from Őtzi’s time period. The people of this time would have worshipped the spirits of deceased ancestors and engaged in rituals to commune with the spirit world and to ask for acceptance in the afterlife (, n.d.). Natural forces, such as the wind and rain, would be believed to be controlled by the gods. Because Őtzi was carrying the copper axe, it is possible that he was a religious figure among his people, and he may have been traveling on some important mission or quest. It is impossible to know everything about his life, but the remarkable condition of his preserved body has mean that Őtzi has been able to tell us many things about how people lived thousands of years ago.

Works Cited

Conklin, Wendy. Mysteries in History. Westminster, CA: Teacher Created Resources, 2005. Print.

Gay, Kathlyn, and Christine Whittington. Body Marks: Tattooing, Piercing, and Scarification. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2002. Print.

Hales, Sheila. Developing Literacy Skills: Pack Unit 1. Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 2000. Print. “Ötzi – the Iceman | Ötzi – South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.” Home | Ötzi – South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 June 2013.