Autopsy Results of a 5,300-year-old Murder in the Italian Alps

The Italian Alps

A Neolithic man who died a violent death high in the Ötztal Alps has been thawed for the first time in 5,300 years, and his autopsy is revealing new clues as to how he lived and died. The mummified body of the man, nicknamed Ötzi, was first discovered partially embedded in a glacier in September of 1991 by two German hikers, and due to the initial assumption that he was a modern corpse, was hastily extracted from the ice by Austrian authorities and taken to a morgue in Innsbruck. Only then did scientists learn Ötzi’s true age and historical significance as the oldest natural European mummy from the Copper Age.

Since then, Ötzi has been relocated to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where he has been kept frozen to prevent deterioration of his remarkably well-preserved remains. He has been extensively examined, measured, X-rayed and scanned, and his possessions, which include a copper axe, a quiver of mostly untipped arrows, a flint-bladed knife, an unfinished long bow and a fire-starting kit, have been meticulously catalogued and analyzed.
Visit the National Geographic site to view images of Ötzi and his possessions.

Previous examinations in the 1990s and 2000s revealed amazing amounts of information about the iceman, so scientists have a good idea of how Ötzi lived. Ötzi was about 45 years old and 1.65m (5 feet 5 inches) tall and weighed about 50kg (110lb). He grew up northeast of Bolzano, Italy, and spent his adulthood in Venosta Valley, approximately 50km north of his childhood home. Scientists speculate that he was involved in copper smelting based on the high levels of copper and arsenic in his hair samples and his possession of a well-made copper axe, the only complete prehistoric axe recovered to date. He suffered from a whipworm infestation as well as osteochondrosis and slight degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine, possibly due to his advanced age and active lifestyle. Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that he had genetic markers associated with reduced fertility.

Forensic analysis determined that Ötzi died a violent death. Based on pollen collected from inside his body, scientists believe that Ötzi died in the spring. His stomach appeared to be empty, but intestinal contents revealed that his last meal, which he’d eaten approximately 8 hours before his death, consisted of chamois meat. His hands, wrists and chest were cut and bruised, and he had a puncture wound in his left shoulder, where an arrowhead had severed a major artery, causing Ötzi to bleed to death in minutes. Also, he had experienced cerebral trauma shortly before his death. Unconfirmed analysis of DNA found on his knife and an arrowhead hinted at the presence of blood from three other people. DNA from a fourth person was discovered on his coat. Based on this and other evidence, scientists developed the following scenario to explain his mysterious death: Ötzi was involved in an altercation at lower altitudes with adversaries who chased him up the mountainside. During his flight he might have been assisting a wounded comrade, who deposited blood on his coat. At higher altitudes, the pursuers caught up with Ötzi and killed him with a bow and arrow, then possibly hit him in the head with a rock. The position of his body, face down with his left arm bent awkwardly across his chest, suggests that he was flipped over onto his stomach shortly before or after his death, possibly in an attempt by his assailants to recover the arrow that had killed him.

The most recent examinations, however, do not support some of the details of this account. In the latest round of poking and prodding, Ötzi was thawed under carefully controlled conditions to permit a full-scale autopsy by a team of scientists and medical experts. Initial results of the 9-hour procedure are revealing new details about Ötzi’s last few days among the living and forcing archaeologists to re-evaluate their account of how he met his untimely death.
View the NOVA program, with video of Ötzi’s autopsy and reenactments of his life and death..

The autopsy was prompted by assertions from radiologist Paul Gostner, the man who had first spotted the arrowhead in Ötzi’s shoulder, that scientists had mistaken the empty colon for the stomach, which had been pushed up to where his lower lung would be normally. The best way to answer this question was to thaw the mummy and perform a thorough examination using as access points the “Austrian windows”, deep gashes that had been cut into the torso and skull during the initial examination in Innsbruck. During the autopsy, scientists collected 149 biological samples including bone, muscle, lung, hair and stomach contents. In addition, a neurosurgeon used an endoscope to try to examine what appeared to be a hematoma at the rear of his skull on a previous CT scan.

Shortly after the autopsy was complete, the mummy was refrozen and put back on display.

Many of the autopsy samples have yet to be fully examined, but some initial results have been made public. One key observation was that Ötzi’s stomach was not empty prior to his death. Instead, he had feasted on fatty meat from an alpine ibex and grain less than an hour before his death—a fact that seems inconsistent with a arduous flight up the mountain. The neurological exam confirmed that blood had pooled at the back of Ötzi’s brain, suggesting that he had fallen during the attack or his assailants had bludgeoned him in the head as he lay dying. The updated hypothesis to explain Ötzi’s last hours is that he had just finished a heavy meal and was resting in a sheltered spot high in the Alps when he was caught by surprise by one or more enemies and was murdered.

Biological samples collected during the autopsy also yielded DNA, which tells us that Ötzi had brown hair and brown eyes and was probably lactose intolerant. He was also at high risk for atherosclerosis and may have suffered from Lyme disease, based on the presence of Borrelia burgdorferi DNA. He is most closely related to geographically isolated populations found in modern Sardinia, Sicily and the Iberian peninsula.

All of the evidence collected over the past two decades indicates that Ötzi led a long life—45 years of age was old during the Copper Age—and physically demanding life. It seems that he made frequent long walks over hilly terrain. Physical and radiological exams showed strong muscle development in his legs and damage to his tibia, femur, pelvis and lumbar spine, with signs of excessive wear and tear of the knee and ankle joints. Ötzi had several carbon tattoos along his lumbar spine, behind his right knee and around both ankles, and scientists speculate that these tattoos may be related to pain-relief treatments. Physical exertion was made more difficult by damage to his lungs, which were blackened, probably from breathing in campfire smoke. His teeth were in poor condition, and he had quite a few cavities, which may have been caused by his carbohydrate-rich diet.

Ötzi’s life was difficult right up to the end. In the last six months before his death, he was sick three times, with the most recent illness lasting about two weeks. He died in a strange territory, miles from his adult and childhood homes, as the victim of a surprise attack. The murderer left Ötzi where he fell, pausing only to collect his arrow, then leaving his body exposed to the harsh alpine conditions that preserved him so well.

The iceman waited a long time to share his secrets, and as additional tests are completed using samples gathered during the autopsy, scientists are sure to gather new information about Ötzi’s life and death. I am amazed that scientists can gather so much information about the life (and death) of a man who lived 5,300 years ago and create such a detailed biography. However, despite our advanced technology, we may never know exactly what happened on that mountainside.

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

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