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Prehistoric Europe

Image of Stone Age Death

Edited from BBC News, 7 February 2002

One small replica arrowhead in 2002 was at the centre of one of the most extraordinary stories in modern archaeology.

It was a perfect replica of the flint arrowhead which scientists had decided was responsible for killing Oetzi the iceman, the hunter from about 3300 BC who emerged from a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991.

The copy was constructed using data from a 3D Cat san (Computer-aided tomography) of this early Neolithic hunter's body (mistakenly cast as a Stone Age hunter-gather by initial BBC reports).

Arguments were already raging in regard to whether the real arrowhead should be cut out of Oetzi, who was being preserved 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, was in no doubt that a full post mortem procedure should go ahead. Professor Vanezis was one of many researchers who were 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 answers you want to all the questions 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 September 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 that he died from cold and hunger. It was only in 2001 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 which is full of blood vessels - probably meant that he bled to death (see 'related links' in the sidebar).

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

He was about 159 centimetres tall, forty-six years of age, 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, which were 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 which were found not just on his garments but which were recovered from his colon. That contained bran from the primitive wheat, Einkorn. Muscle fibres which were also retrieved from the colon confirm that he also ate goat meat.

The presence in the body of pollen from the hophornbeam tree, which flowers in the Alps between March and June, indicates that 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 history's best window onto the very early Neolithic period in Europe:

'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 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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