History In The Headlines

Europe’s Oldest Natural Mummy Has Living Relatives

By Barbara Maranzani
Last week, researchers announced that they have located at least 19 living descendants of a prehistoric iceman discovered along the Italy-Austria border in 1991. Known as Ötzi the Iceman, he is believed to have lived roughly 5,300 years ago before meeting a violent death. The news of Ötzi’s numerous living descendants is just the latest in a long of discoveries scientists have made regarding the mummy.
Scientist's reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman (Credit: Getty Images)

Scientist's reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman (Credit: Getty Images)

The study, published in the journal Science, linked Ötzi with his living relatives by tracing a rare genetic mutation on the Y-chromosome. The mutation, known as G-L91, is passed down along the male line, and scientists at Austria’s Institute for Forensic Medicine have been using the mutation to trace population movements in the Italian and Austrian Alps over multiple generations. They’ve collected more than 3,700 blood and DNA samples from local Austrian men as part of the study, and were able to identify the G-L91 mutation in samples from Ötzi and at least 19 other men, though they expect that number to grow as they collect more samples. As of last week, they had not notified the study participants of their genetic connection to one of the world’s most famous mummies.

Two German tourists discovered the mummy while hiking through the Ötzal mountains in September 1991. It took local authorities several days to extract the body, whose head and torso jutted out of a small, melting glacier, while his lower body remained frozen in ice. A brief turf battle broke out over control of the remains, which now technically belong to Italy, though they have allowed Austrian scientists to conduct nearly all subsequent testing on both the mummy and the archaeological site, which yielded the remains of clothing, including a bearskin cap, and genetic materials including hair and muscle fibers and a finger nail. Using radiocarbon dating, they were able to establish that Ötzi lived between 3350 and 3100 B.C.

Thanks to his remarkable level of preservation (attributed to his being buried first under a mound of snow followed by a layer of ice) researchers have been able to not only pinpoint not only when he lived, but also how he died. In 2001, X-rays revealed evidence that a brutal physical struggle preceded Ötzi’s death, including abrasions and bruises and a flint arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder that severed a blood vessel and severely damaged his arm. The final death blow, they now believe was caused by blunt trauma to the back of the head, which shattered his skull.

Ötzi the Iceman (Credit: Getty Images)

Ötzi the Iceman (Credit: Getty Images)

The researchers have even been able to work up a full medical history, discovering that Ötzi had a predisposition for cardiovascular disease, suffered tooth decay, was likely lactose intolerant and had one of the oldest cases of Lyme disease ever recorded. They’ve also examined the contents of his stomach to determine his last meal–some unleavened bread a bit of meat roughly eight hours before his death–as indicated by a lump of partially-digested food in his colon. The bread also provided clues to Ötzi’s job; it contained a type of wheat not native to Europe during his lifetime, indicating he lived and worked in an agricultural community that cultivated the wheat. Thanks to the recovery of a rare copper ax at the burial site, it seems likely that Ötzi and his family were wealthy and leaders in their community. Scientists are even fairly certain where that farming community was. Tests of rock and soil in the region indicate that Ötzi lived his entire life within no more than 40 miles of where his body was discovered.

In 2001, 20 years after he was first discovered, a Dutch research team created a full facial reconstruction of what Ötzi looked like at the time of his violent death. Ötzi may have only been in his mid 40s, but the grizzled, weathered visage and graying hair and beard suggest someone far older than that. The Dutch team also noted that their research indicated that Ötzi had brown eyes rather than blue, as had been previously thought.

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Categories: Ancient History, Archaeology