Ötzi the Iceman didn′t die hungry, researchers say | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.06.2011
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Ötzi the Iceman didn't die hungry, researchers say

Ötzi, a human specimen who died five millennia ago in the Tyrolean Alps, is offering up new clues to what life was like during the Neolithic era, including revelations on his diet and dental health.

A scientist examines Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi's final meal consisted of a kind of mountain goat

Popular theory on what caused the death of Ötzi, the well-known Iceman, holds that he was killed - now scientists believe that although he likely died during an attack, at least he didn't die hungry.

Preliminary analysis of Ötzi's stomach contents indicates that he enjoyed a hearty last supper of Alpine ibex, a species of mountain goat that appeared to have been present in the Tyrolean Alps during the time of the Iceman, more than 5,000 years ago.

The work was presented earlier this month at the 7th World Congress on Mummy Studies, where researchers also discussed new findings on Ötzi's dental health and DNA, according to a report on the website of the journal, Science.

Previous knowledge of the Iceman's final meal was based on the specimen's fecal matter. Scientists had previously assumed that the stomach was missing or empty, but after re-evaluating scans, they made a startling discovery.

The face of Ötzi the Iceman

Researchers discovered that Ötzi had a number of dental problems

"The stomach was completely filled - this was a big surprise," Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, told Deutsche Welle.

Zink said Ötzi's stomach was found in a strange position, located higher in the torso, likely because the Iceman himself was found in a strange position: leaning over a rock, face-down.

DNA analysis showed that Ötzi did not dine on deer meat before his death, as previously assumed, the journal said. Instead, the type of animal remnants found in his stomach indicated that the Iceman likely had an easier time tracking down his next meal. Zink said ibex were not as shy as deer, which are more easily startled - and that probably made for a simpler, shorter hunt.

The final countdown

The sheer size of Ötzi's dinner could also help scientists determine what the minutes in the run-up to his death were like. Evaluation of the stomach sample suggested that the Iceman had consumed the ibex as little as 30 minutes before he died.

"He really had a big meal - this was also surprising," Zink told Deutsche Welle. "It also shows us that he was not in a hurry," suggesting that Ötzi did not suspect he was in danger or being followed.

"He was somehow feeling safe, and this is important for the reconstruction of his last moments," Zink said.

It also stands to help researchers understand what Ötzi's diet was like overall. Previous findings suggested that humans in the Iceman's time ate more vegetables, but the latest analysis shows that Ötzi ate a more balanced meal, including a substantial amount of meat.

Zink said further research could show that ibex meat wasn't the only kind of game consumed by the Iceman, due to the high levels of fat found in Ötzi's stomach.

"It was maybe not so different from our meals today," he told Deutsche Welle.

Ötzi at the Archaeological Museum of Alto Adige.

Further analysis of Ötzi's DNA could yield new clues about what living conditions were like

Poor dental hygiene

Yet by today's dental hygiene standards, Ötzi's teeth were anything but perfect: Experts found that the Iceman had plenty of cavities.

"Overall, we were surprised to see how bad the dentition was based on what was reported so far," said Dr. Frank Rühli of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zürich.

Previous images of the teeth gave researchers no reason to believe that Ötzi lacked a healthy smile. But the team's own 3-D models told a different story, even suggesting that the Iceman might have been hit in the mouth, according to Science.

Rühli acknowledged the sorry state of Ötzi's teeth but said it was important to remember that everything's relative: "If you take into account his individual age and the time period he lived in, it's probably an average dentition," he told Deutsche Welle.

Dental analysis also helped Ötzi researchers flesh out their knowledge of what the Iceman ate. Rühli said the presence of cavities in Ötzi's mouth pointed to a diet heavy in carbohydrates.

"If you only eat vegetables, it's a different story," he noted.

Nevertheless, the types of sugars present during the age of the Iceman, the Neolithic age, were not the same as sugars today, like those contained in sodas and soft drinks.

Lingering questions

Rühli said his team would soon be presenting new knowledge about Ötzi's dentition, saying there was still more to learn from the Iceman's dental conditions.

"We want to have clear - crystal-clear - cases of diseases in the past, so we can learn more about it," he said.


Ötzi has been an object of fascination since his discovery in 1991

Zink, who oversees all Ötzi research at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, admitted that the preliminary studies presented at the conference were just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming months, scientists plan to reveal more detailed data, and Zink said his team was gearing up to present at the 2nd Bolzano Mummy Conference in October.

Ultimately the investigations into Ötzi's final moments can yield more general knowledge about his fellow Icemen.

"We want to understand what he ate," Zink said. "How the meal was composed - to get a general idea of the living conditions of these people."

Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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