Otzi’s Death and Final Hours

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20120207-Otzi Museumoetzi_anatomische_besonderheiten.jpg

Originally, researchers believed Ötzi froze to death, but a 2001 X-ray revealed an arrowhead in his shoulder, which would have been fatal. The iceman also had a head injury, possibly sustained at the same time, and his right hand shows a defensive wound. The 2001 X-ray detected a stone arrowhead, smaller than a quarter, lodged beneath the left shoulder blade. In 2005, a CT scan showed the arrowhead, probably flint, had made a half-inch gash in the iceman’s left subclavian artery. This most likely killed him. From this evidence it has been concluded that an attacker, positioned behind and below Otzi, fired an arrow that struck Ötzi’s left shoulder. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, October 21, 2021]

According to Live Science The fact that he had an undigested meal in his stomach suggests the Iceman was ambushed, but scientists couldn't agree whether he was bashed over the head or killed by an arrow that nicked an artery in his shoulder. In a 2012 study detailed in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, scientists analyzed the mummy's red blood cells and concluded that Ötzi bled to death after the arrow wound. The blood cells showed traces of a clotting chemical that quickly appears in human blood after a wound but disappears immediately after; the fact that it was still around suggested Ötzi didn't survive long after the injury. [Source: Tia Ghose, Live Science, November 9, 2012]

Ötzi is believed to have died quickly after being pierced by the arrow. It seems plausible that he lost consciousness after being struck and bled to death near where he was found in the Alps between Austria and Italy 5,300 years ago. In 2011, the European Academy of Bozen-Bolzano (EURAC) reported: “There is now broad agreement on the circumstances of Ötzi's death. Around 100 experts on mummies from nearly every single continent gathered for a recent conference with the aim of discussing any diseases he might have been suffering from and the events surrounding his death. [Source: European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano, October 25, 2011 ]

“There was broad agreement at the Bolzano Congress about the last hour of his life. Albert Zink, Head of the Institute for Mummy Research at EURAC, reports as follows about the circumstances of the Iceman's death: "He felt safe enough to take a break, and settled down to a copious meal. While thus resting, he was attacked, shot with an arrow and left for dead." There was no evidence pointing to a possible burial as some scientists have suggested in the past. "The position of the mummified body with his arm pointing obliquely upwards, the lack of any piles of stones or other features which often accompany burial sites, runs counter to the burial theory," he continues.

The majority of the findings are based on the examination of tissue samples from the stomach and the brain taken endoscopically by a team of scientists from Magdeburg, Bolzano and Munich in November 2010. Since then, scientists from almost all disciplines have been investigating these samples from their own specific scientific angles using subject-specific methods: medics, nanotechnologists, anthropologists, biochemists, archaeologists and physicists. There are now over 100 "Ötzi researchers," and the Bolzano Mummy Congress represents a so far unique opportunity for them to discuss the present state of research face-to-face at a gathering which was specifically dedicated to the famous iceman.”

Good Websites Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it ; Archaeology News Report archaeologynewsreport.blogspot.com ; Anthropology.net anthropology.net : archaeologica.org archaeologica.org ; Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com ; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org ; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com; Livescience livescience.com/

Questions About Otzi's Death

20120207-Otzi Museum arrow hole.jpg
arrow hole

According to EURAC: There is still the problem of what was Ötzi doing up there, at a height of 3,200 metres? At the Bolzano Congress, the Innsbruck based scientists Andreas Putzer, Daniela Festi and Klaus Oeggl refuted the theory, first put forward in 1996, according to which Ötzi was a shepherd who had taken his herd to pastures high up in the mountains to graze during the summer months. According to the latest archaeological and botanical findings, there was no seasonal migration of cattle during the Chalcolithic period, the Copper Stone Age. The so called transhumance did not start until around 1500 B.C.

“Ötzi was not on the run. On the contrary, between 30 and 120 minutes before his death he had settled down to a hearty meal, as evidenced by stomach samples investigated by Albert Zink and his team this past summer. Goat meat, grains of corn, pieces of leaves, apples and flies' wings were clearly discernible under the microscope. Innsbruck Botanist Klaus Oeggl was able to detect pollen from the Hop-hornbeam in Ötzi's stomach. Oeggl had, some time ago, discovered a high concentration of such pollen in Ötzi's bowels and had concluded that Ötzi had actually died in the spring and not, as had been assumed for some time, in the autumn. Since food remains fresher in the stomach where it only stays two to four hours, the discovery of pollen in this part of the body gives further weight to this theory.

“Nanotechnology used on a brain sample at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich was able to confirm a further assumption: Ötzi did in fact suffer trauma to his skull and brain. This alone would have been sufficient to cause death, but was no doubt at least a contributory factor along with his arrow wound. What is still unclear is whether he incurred the trauma through a fall or a blow to the head.

Theories About Why the Iceman Died

Some have speculated that maybe Otzi had a run in with rival hunters over a disputed hunting ground or was ambushed by younger members of his village who had hoped to topple him as a village leader. He was found clutching his dagger in the same hand that had been badly wounded. His hand is believed to be have been so badly cut he couldn’t use some of his fingers.

Offering a scenario on what might have happened, Walter Leitner, an expert on Stone Age culture and archery and an archaeologist at the University of Innsbruck, told National Geographic: “The time had come where his opponents had become stronger but he didn’t recognize that his rein was coming to an end and was holding on to his position....It looks as if the Iceman was planning to flee and that his trip was brought to an end by his opponents.”

Some scholars had suggested before that Otzi may have been ritually killed as part of human sacrifice or religious ritual. But the discovery of blood of others on his clothes and arrow — if that evidence holds up — pretty much refutes arguments of that theory. There are still a lot of unknowns. For example it is still not clear if the arrow wound is what killed him. If arteries had been severed he may have bled to death. If not he could have survived a length of time after he was shot.

Iceman Murdered?

In 2001, after ten years of meticulously examining him, scientists finally came up with a likely scenario of how Otzi died. That year doctors in Italy found a flint arrowhead in his left shoulder and a wound that had not healed and deduced that an arrow entered his back, passed near his lung and severed an artery, causing him to die from loss of blood. Scientists, included some that had checked the body over a hundred times, were shocked they hadn’t seen the arrow head before.

Further examination revealed that Otzi had deep wounds on his hands that could have been caused in a knife fight. The entry point of the arrow is below the arrow head which suggests he shot from below. A CAT scan performed at a hospital in Bolzano revealed that flint-head arrow most likely pierced a bone before making made a centimeter-wide gash in his subclavian artery, which delivers blood from the heart the left arm.

It has been determined that Otzi died in late spring or early summer based in the presence of pollen from the hop hornbeam, an Alpine tree with yellow flowers that blooms that time of year. Initially it was thought that he was trapped in a freak storm or blizzard that blew through the pass where he was found, and he died of exposure. His stomach was empty but there was a lot of material in his large intestine, which means he had probably eaten eight hour before he died. Some speculated he died of malnutrition or possibly fell in crevasse, or maybe was even offered as a human sacrifice.

Iceman's Final Struggle

Days before he died the Iceman suffered cuts to his right hand and wrist consistent with wound made by a hatchets. Some scientists think Otzi was being pursued by people that attacked him and say he escaped his attackers and died alone. Otherwise they argue he would have been robbed of his possessions.

Using ballistics evidence and reasoning like that used by CSI investigators, other scientists believe that Otzi was shot with an arrow and his attackers pulled the arrow shaft from his body and left him to bleed. Based on the markings found on Otzi’s body and studies of prehistoric arrows and hunting, German archaeologist Egerter Vogl said, “I believe — in fact, I am convinced — that the person who shot the Iceman with the arrow is same person who pulled it out.” The positioning of the wound indicates Otzi was shot from behind and below. The location behind the shoulder blade is the same place where prehistoric hunters aimed to bring down game in a single shot. Vogl theorized the attacker took the shaft to cover his crime and didn’t take any of the Iceman’s possession because he didn’t want to be linked to the murder.

Findings announced in 2003 by Dr. Tom Loy of Queensland University in Australia indicated that Otzi may have stood his ground and fought off several foes after being shot and was then helped by a friend. According to Loy, DNA analysis of blood found in Otzi’s arrows, knife and coat found DNA from four separate people, including the Iceman himself. The blood of one individual was found on the back of his cloak, another was found on his knife and more DNA was found on the arrowheads. Loy has speculated that maybe Otzi shot someone and pulled out the arrow. The bloodstains someone else on his leather jacket suggest he might have been supported by a wounded companion. Bruises on Otzi’s torso and the cuts on his hand suggest he was in nasty fight. Many academics have serious doubts about the data. Loy’s research has only been released to the media and not reported in scientific literature.

Ötzi’s Last Meal: Mostly Horrible-Tasting Ibex Fat

Otzi's arrows

Analysis of Otzi’s stomach determined his last meal, eaten 12 hours before his death, was red deer meat and bread made from einkorn (a primitive variety of wheat) and he had some plums fairly recently. Ibex bones were found near his body. DNA studies by molecular anthropologists of his intestines determined that his second to last meal was ibex meat, cereals (grass grains) and various other plants. Barley was found on his clothes. The presence of einkorn and barley suggests his people may have practiced rudimentary agriculture.

The first in-depth analysis of Otzi’s stomach contents in 2018 revealed that half of his last meal consisted of animal fat, primarily from Alpine ibex, a kind of wild goat Ian Sample of the The Guardian wrote: “While researchers have previously studied remnants of food in Ötzi’s intestines, a more complete picture of his final feast was delayed because they could not find his stomach. It was finally located by a CT scan, tucked up under his ribcage near his shrunken lungs. “It was surprising to see this extraordinarily high-fat diet,” said Frank Maixner at the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy. “He clearly knew that fat is a high-energy source and he really composed his diet to survive at high altitude.” [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, July 12, 2018 ==]

“Ötzi’s last meal may have fortified him for a hunting trip that lasted several days high up in the Alps, but it may not have been the most enjoyable feast. Maixner has tried ibex. He said the meat is not too bad, but struggled to find the words to encapsulate the experience of eating the animal’s subcutaneous fat. “The taste is really, well, it’s horrible,” he said. “And they had no salt at the time.” ==

“Ötzi’s body is stored at -6C to ensure the remains do not deteriorate. So to analyse his stomach contents, Maixner, part of an international team of scientists, had to partially thaw the corpse to collect samples to check for remains of his final meal. Through a combination of methods including DNA matching and microscopic inspections, the researchers found traces of red deer and ibex meat, ancient wheat and plenty of ibex fat. They also discovered multiple traces of toxic bracken, a finding that has the scientists stumped. ==

“Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers speculate that Ötzi may have eaten the toxic bracken to rid himself of whipworm parasites, which had been discovered in his intestines previously. But Maixner favours other explanations. Ötzi may have eaten the bracken as a food supplement, a practice known among some indigenous groups. “Another possibility is that he wrapped his dried meat in bracken leaves and some of the material got into his gut unintentionally,” Maixner said.” ==

Ker Than wrote for National Geographic: “Scientists previously analyzed the contents of Ötzi’s lower intestine and determined that he ate a meal of grains along with possibly cooked red deer and goat meat up to 30 hours before his death. The team found the stomach by examining other associated organs, which had maintained their relative positions to one another when they shifted. The team found gallstones in the gall bladder, for instance, and from there could identify the stomach. As a result of the natural mummification process, Ötzi’s stomach had shrunk considerably. But the researchers were able to get sample of its contents, which—like the intestines—contained evidence of meat and wheat grains. The state of the partially digested food suggests the Iceman ate a substantial meal less than two hours before his death. “The stomach content is yellowish to brownish colored and mushy, with some bigger pieces of meat and grain,” Maixner said. [Source: Ker Than, nationalgeographic.com, June 23, 2011 ***]

Ötzi Had Just Sharpened His Tools Days Before His Murder

Days before his violent death, according to a study published online June 20, 2018, in the journal PLOS One, Ötzi re-sharpened his tools, likely with his right hand, according to an analysis of the cut marks on his belongings.Laura Geggel wrote in Live Science: However, that may not mean the iceman was sharpening his tools because he was anticipating a fight — especially because he hadn't recently re-sharpened his dagger or other weapons, the researchers in the new analysis said. "I can't say" whether he was preparing for a fight, study co-researcher Ursula Wierer, an archaeologist at Soprintendenza Archeology, an office within the Italian ministry, told Live Science. "But I think he re-sharpened them because maybe he had some work in mind [that he wanted] to do with these modified tools." [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, June 21, 2018]

Nearly all of Ötzi's tools had been reworked or re-sharpened over the years, the researchers found. But two artifacts — the oval-shaped end scraper, likely used for cutting plants or working animal hides, and the borer, likely used for boring holes in material such as wood — had been freshly modified, likely by Ötzi himself, Wierer said. The newer modifications had an opaque patina and didn't show signs of wear, she noted.

It is likely that Ötzi was right-handed based on an analysis of wear traces on the chert tools, the researchers said. However, given that Ötzi had a cut on his right hand when he died, it's unlikely that he had re-sharpened his tools in the days immediately before his death, said Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research in Italy, who was not involved with the study.

Was Otzi’s Murder the Result of a Personal Conflict?

Otzi’s murder seems to have been brought about due to a personal conflict a few days before his demise..According to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: “Ötzi was murdered. The arrow head discovered in 2001 in his left shoulder suggests this. But what were the circumstances surrounding the crime? In 2014 the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology commissioned Chief Inspector Alexander Horn of the Munich Criminal Investigation Department to investigate the "Ötzi Murder Case" using the latest criminological methods. Horn interrogated various "acquaintances" of the murder victim such as archaeologists from the museum who had been looking after Ötzi for years, or experts from forensic medicine, radiology and anthropology. [Source: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, September 23, 2016]

“Members of the project team also took part in an on-site inspection of the location in Schnals where the body was found. The results of this investigation were that Ötzi probably did not feel threatened shortly before his murder, because the situation at the Tisenjoch location where he was found indicates that he had been resting while enjoying a hearty meal. In the days prior to the murder he had incurred an injury to his right hand, probably as a result of defensive action during the course of a physical altercation. No further injuries could be found, and this might serve to indicate that he had not been defeated in this particular conflict.

“The arrow shot, which was probably fatal, seems to have been launched from a great distance and took the victim by surprise, from which we may infer that it was an act of treachery. Further medical findings suggest that the victim fell and that the perpetrator used no further violence. The perpetrator probably did not wish to risk a physical altercation, but instead chose a long distance attack to kill the man from the ice. As valuable objects such as the copper axe remained at the crime scene, theft can be excluded as the motive. The reason for the offence is more likely to be found in some sort of personal conflict situation, in a previous hostile encounter — "a behavioural pattern which is prevalent even today in the bulk of murder crimes," as Alexander Horn explained.”

Otzi’s Died Quickly

Otzi Memorial
Nikhil Swaminathan wrote in Archaeology: “Scientists probed thin tissue slices from the arrow wound and a laceration on Ötzi's hand. They used an atomic force microscope to trace the surface of the tissue and create a 3-D rendering. The resulting images included doughnut shapes that are the hallmark of red blood cells. Zink says finding blood cells and the clotting protein fibrin—and no sign of healing—at the arrow wound site indicates that Ötzi died within minutes of being shot.[Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 4, July/August 2012]

James Owen wrote in National Geographic News: “The new nanotechnology, allied with an atomic force microscope, also uncovered traces of fibrin, a blood-clotting agent—evidence that the Iceman suffered a mercifully quick demise. Fibrin is formed immediately when you get a wound, within a few minutes, but then it disappears"—in a living, functioning body, anyway, Zink said. "Finding fibrin in the arrow wound is confirmation that Ötzi actually died very quickly after the arrowshot.There were still some people arguing that he survived the arrow maybe a few hours or a few days, but this was definitely not true." [Source: James Owen, National Geographic News, May 1, 2012] “The relatively new techniques used in the study may in the future assist in the investigation of modern-day homicides. Since old blood cells are more elastic than fresh samples, the same blood-analysis techniques could become useful at crime scenes, Zink said. "If the blood is dry, forensic science really has no good method for determining the age of blood spots ... They cannot say if it is a day, a week, or a month old," he said. "If you can record with this technology little differences in the elasticity of the structure, then you can maybe determine the age of the blood spot."

Evidence that Otzi Suffered a Brain Injury

European Academy of Bozen-Bolzano (EURAC) reported: After decoding the Iceman's genetic make-up, a research team from EURAC, Saarland University, Kiel University and other partners has now made another major breakthrough in mummy research: using just a pinhead-sized sample of brain tissue from the world-famous glacier corpse, the team was able to extract and analyse proteins to further support the theory that Ötzi suffered some form of brain damage in the final moments of his life. [Source: European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano, June 10, 2013 ^*^]

“Two dark coloured areas at the back of the Iceman's cerebrum had first been mentioned back in 2007 during a discussion about the fracture to his skull. Scientists surmised from a CAT scan of his brain that he had received a blow to the forehead during his deadly attack that caused his brain to knock against the back of his head, creating dark spots from the bruising. Till now, this hypothesis had been left unexplored. ^*^

“In 2010, with the help of computer-controlled endoscopy, two samples of brain tissue the size of a pinhead were extracted from the glacier mummy. This procedure was carried out via two tiny (previously existing) access holes and was thus minimally invasive. Microbiologist Frank Maixner (EURAC, Institute for Mummies and the Iceman) and his fellow scientist Andreas Tholey (Institute for Experimental Medicine, Kiel University) conducted two parallel, independent studies on the tiny bundles of cells. Tholey's team provided the latest technology used in the study of complex protein mixtures known as "proteomes." The various analyses were coordinated by Frank Maixner and Andreas Keller. ^*^

“The protein research revealed a surprising amount of information. Scientists were able to identify numerous brain proteins, as well as proteins from blood cells. Microscopic investigation also confirmed the presence of astonishingly well-preserved neural cell structures and clotted blood cells. On the one hand, this led the scientists to conclude that the recovered samples did indeed come from brain tissue in remarkably good condition (the proteins contained amino acid sequence features specific to Ötzi). On the other hand, these blood clots in a corpse almost devoid of blood provided further evidence that Ötzi's brain had possibly suffered bruising shortly before his death. Whether this was due to a blow to the forehead or a fall after being injured by the arrow remains unclear. ^*^

“The discoveries represent a major breakthrough for the scientists. The research team emphasised that "the use of new protein-analysis methods has enabled us to pioneer this type of protein investigation on the soft tissue of a mummified human, extracting from the tiniest sample a vast quantity of data which in the future may well answer many further questions." While many DNA samples from mummies are difficult or impossible to analyse because of natural biological decay, one can often still find proteins in tissue samples which allow a closer analysis and provide valuable information, explained Andreas Tholey: "Proteins are the decisive players in tissues and cells, and they conduct most of the processes which take place in cells. Identification of the proteins is therefore key to understanding the functional potential of a particular tissue. DNA is always constant, regardless of from where it originates in the body, whereas proteins provide precise information about what is happening in specific regions within the body." Protein analysis of mummified tissue makes an especially valuable contribution to DNA research, Maixner added: "Investigating mummified tissue can be very frustrating. The samples are often damaged or contaminated and do not necessarily yield results, even after several attempts and using a variety of investigative methods. When you think that we have succeeded in identifying actual tissue changes in a human who lived over 5,000 years ago, you can begin to understand how pleased we are as scientists that we persisted with our research after many unsuccessful attempts. It has definitely proved worthwhile!" ^*^

“The results of this joint study are published in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. Along with a sample taken from the Iceman´s stomach content, more than a dozen tissue samples from less well preserved mummies from all over the world will be submitted to this new protein-based research method and should provide insights which previously had not been possible.” ^*^

Questions About the Narrative of Ötzi’s Death

A study published November 7, 2022 in the journal Holocene raised questions the prevailing story of Otzi’s death, arguing that he did not die in the gully where he was found. Rather, his remains may have been carried there by the periodic thawing of the ice that surrounded his body. Archaeologist Lars Pilø, the lead author of the study, also leads the Secrets of the Ice project, which studies the archaeology of glaciers and ice patches, many of which are now melting and revealing frozen troves of ancient artifacts. [Source: Tom Metcalfe. Livescience, November 23, 2022]

According to the Secrets of the Ice website , the generally accepted story of Ötzi’s death comes from investigations by archaeologist Konrad Spindler of the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Spindler found that Ötzi had probably been murdered: an arrowhead was embedded in his shoulder, and a deep cut in his hand appeared to be a defensive wound suffered while warding off a blow. He also noted that Ötzi’s backpack, bow and arrow quiver were damaged, which Spindler proposed was a sign of combat. But Pilø and his colleagues argue that the damage to Ötzi’s equipment was probably caused by the pressure of the ice that surrounded them. "There’s definitely been a conflict," he said. "But what we say is that the damage to the artifacts is more easily explained by natural processes."

According to Live Science: The most significant proposal in the new study is that Ötzi didn’t die at the bottom of the gully where he was found, but rather that his body was carried there as the ice thawed and refroze over several summers. Early investigations proposed that Ötzi was killed in the gully in the fall season, and that his body was protected there from the crushing pressure of a glacier above. But analysis of the food in Ötzi’s intestine suggests instead that he died in the spring or early summer, when the gully would have been filled with ice, Pilø said.

In the new study, the authors propose that Ötzi died somewhere on the surface of a stationary ice patch — not a moving glacier — and that his remains and artifacts were carried into the gully by the periodic thawing and refreezing of the ice. That means the body and artifacts were exposed at times, and may have been submerged in melted ice water, but they nonetheless stood the test of time for thousands of years. So, it’s likely that other long-dead bodies may have been preserved in the same way, he said.

Otzi lithic assemblage

Archaeologist Andreas Putzer of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano in Italy, where Ötzi’s body and artifacts are on display, said that closer investigation of the mummy could confirm if it had indeed been exposed to glacial meltwater over time. "A mummy submerged in water would lose its epidermis [skin], hair, and nails," Putzer, who was not involved in the new research, told Live Science. "Normally this happens to bodies of drowned persons." Pathological research could determine if the remains were ever submerged in melted ice water, as the new study proposes, or if they were continually frozen in ice, he said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News,Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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