History Files


Prehistoric Europe

Image of Stone Age Death

BBC News, 7 February 2002



One small replica arrowhead is at the centre of one of the most extraordinary stories in modern archaeology.

It is a perfect replica of the flint arrowhead that scientists now think killed Oetzi the iceman, the 5,300-year-old hunter who emerged from a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991.

The copy has been constructed using data from a 3D Cat (Computer-aided tomography) scan of the Stone Age man's body.

Arguments now rage as to whether the real arrowhead should be cut out of Oetzi, who is kept in a freezer at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Peter Vanezis, professor of forensic medicine and science at the University of Glasgow, UK, is in no doubt a full post mortem procedure should go ahead. Professor Vanezis is one of the many researchers who have been called in to look at the body.

"It's vital to carry out an autopsy because as a forensic pathologist I'm fully aware that you don't really get the answer to all the questions you want unless you have a proper look inside the body and are able to retrieve the evidence," he said.

Bad case of worms

The iceman was discovered by German tourists in the September of 1991 in the Oetz Valley - hence the name - still wearing goatskin leggings and a grass cape. His copper-headed axe and a quiver full of arrows were lying nearby.

At first, it was thought he died from cold and hunger. It was only last year that researchers finally established he had a stone arrowhead embedded in his shoulder and that the nature of the injury - its position in an area full of blood vessels - probably meant he bled to death.

Rather embarrassingly the presence of the arrowhead was clear to see on a Cat scan done in 1994 but had been overlooked. A decade of research, however, has built up a fascinating picture of how Oetzi might have lived.

Oetzi was about 159 centimetres (five feet, 2.5 inches) tall, 46 years old, arthritic, and infested with whipworm.

He had also been seriously ill three times in the last several months of his life. High levels of copper and arsenic in his hair indicate that he had been involved in copper smelting.

Dead mountaineer

He wore three layers of garments made from goat, deerskin and bark fibre. He had well-made shoes and a bearskin hat.

It is believed he belonged to an agricultural community based on the cereal grains found not just on his garments but recovered from his colon, which contained bran of the primitive wheat Einkorn. Muscle fibres also retrieved from the colon confirm he ate goat meat as well.

The presence in the body of pollen from the hophornbeam tree, which flowers in the Alps between March and June, indicates Oetzi died not in the autumn as first thought but in the spring or early summer.

German hikers Erika and Helmut Simon described the moment they discovered our best window onto the Stone Age:

"My husband walked in front of me a bit and then suddenly he stopped and said 'look at what's lying there' and I said 'oh, it's a body'." Mrs Simon said. "Then my husband took a photograph, just one, the last we had left in the camera."

Mr Simon continues: "We thought that it was a mountain climber or a skier who had had an accident - perhaps ten years previously or perhaps two years previously."



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