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Prehistoric Europe

Scientists Solve Iceman Mystery

Edited from BBC News, 26 July 2001. Updated 30 July 2023

Scientists in Austria stated in 2001 that they had solved the mystery of how the famous Oetzi iceman died. It appears that he had been hit by an arrow.

The hunter's perfectly preserved body - which was dated to about 3300 BC - was discovered ten years beforehand in a melting glacier in the Italian Alps. It was initially thought that he had died from cold and hunger. But after a decade of work researchers were able to announce that an arrowhead had been discovered in his left shoulder.

They speculated that Oetzi may have fled his attacker before bleeding to death and subsequently being entombed in ice.

Shrunken and shrivelled

The iceman was discovered by German tourists in 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.

The corpse had been shrunken and shrivelled by the effects of time and cold, but was otherwise remarkably well preserved. Scientists were extremely cautious about damaging the body as they tried to learn from it - particularly as the mummy was also the subject of a political dispute, having been found just metres inside the Italian border, but initially having been taken away by the Austrian authorities.

Oetzi since found a permanent home at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

Painful death

A radiologist in the investigation team by the name of Paul Gostner was the one to announce the discovery of the two centimetre-long stone arrowhead in Oetzi's left shoulder.

Eduard Egarter Vigl, another of the researchers, stated that the arrow had shattered the scapula, tearing through nerves and major blood vessels, and paralysing the left arm in what must have been an extremely painful death. It probably took between three to ten hours for him to die, he said.

Dnieper Balts

It is possible, the researchers added, that Oetzi may have fled from his attacker to the spot at which he was later entombed in the ice. Scientists at the museum were hugely excited by the discovery. The museum's director, Alex Susanna, said it disproved all other theories about Oetzi's death.

Ancient society

'All of those publications of the past seven or eight years which stated that he died due to broken ribs, that he died under the snow, or that he was exhausted and laid down where he fell asleep and froze to death - are wrong,' he said.

'Maybe combat was involved. Perhaps he was involved in a battle. There is a whole series of new implications. The story needs to be rewritten.'

Scientists hoped to use the new information to reconstruct the last hours of the iceman's life and his role in ancient society. Previous investigation had already shown that the iceman was between forty-five and fifty years old when he died, which was relatively old for the era, around the time at which humans were switching from using Neolithic stone tools in favour of Chalcolithic (copper) tools.

Based on his DNA signature, Oetzi was part of the migration of Neolithic farmers which came through Anatolia (modern Turkey), gradually replacing Europe's Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers.

His maternal genetic heritage no longer exists in modern populations, but his paternal line lives on in groups which can be found on Mediterranean islands, especially Sardinia.



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