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Prehistoric Europe

Iceman 'Bled to Death on Glacier'

Edited from BBC News, 6 June 2007

Massive blood loss from a ruptured artery killed Oetzi, the early Neolithic hunter who died in the Alpine ice around 3300 BC. Tests confirmed this in 2007.

A Swiss-Italian team stated that the arrow which struck him in the left shoulder managed to slit the artery under his collar bone. Oetzi probably died as the result of a fight: he may either have fled his attacker - who then shot him in the back - or was ambushed.

The remains of this Neolithic man were discovered in 1991, partially emerged from a melting glacier. They were then subjected to a long series of investigations, with the latest results in 2007 being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Examinations of his food and, perhaps more importantly, tree pollen in his stomach established that Oetzi started his day with a meal in a wooded valley below the Alps. But, later on the same day, he was involved in a fight. This assessment is based on the presence of a flint arrowhead which was lodged in his back and extensive cuts to his hands.

No one can be sure whether this attack took place in the valley below, prompting Oetzi to flee up the mountain, or whether he was involved in a violent scrap at the altitude of 3,210 metres where his body was discovered in 1991, on the border between Austria and Italy.

Cold case

Recent advances in computerised tomography (CT), a sophisticated X-ray scan which allows multidimensional imaging, gave researchers an unprecedented view of Oetzi's internal anatomy.

The pictures reveal a 13mm-long rip in Oetzi's left subclavian artery which lies just under the collar bone. Blood poured out into the surrounding tissue, forming a haematoma which can be seen in the breast cavity.

At first, it was thought that he had died from cold and hunger, but researchers were eventually able to establish that he died from injuries which had been sustained in a conflict.

'We can conclude that this was really a deadly hit from the arrowhead,' Dr Ruhli said. 'He would not have walked around for days. It was a quick death. Theoretically, you could be hit by an arrow and survive. If it doesn't hit an artery or the lung, and you don't get an infection then it shouldn't be a problem.'

Clotted blood also entered the hole which was created by the arrow's wooden shaft, showing that it was broken off while Oetzi was still alive and therefore still bleeding.

Oetzi climbed up to the Schnalstal Glacier and died from cardiac arrest, brought on by shock after sustaining massive blood loss, the science team said.

Cover up?

Dr Ruhli speculated that it was possible that the iceman removed the shaft himself. Alternatively, it could have been removed by an ally who tried in vain to help him, or perhaps by the attacker - if his arrows had a characteristic shaft - to try to cover up evidence which could have linked him to the killing.

The University of Zurich researcher said the speed at which Oetzi would have died following his injury made it seem more likely that he was shot on the glacier, rather than in the valley below where he started his journey.

  He would not have walked around for days. It was a quick death

Dr Frank Ruhli
University of Zurich

But Dr Ruhli added, 'this is speculation, because someone might have helped him up there. I'd rather stick to the facts'.

It is impossible to tell whether Oetzi was hit while he was walking, running, or stationary. But it seems the arrow was fired from below Oetzi, suggesting the killer was either kneeling or was further down a hill. The arrow hit with some considerable power, penetrating Oetzi's shoulder blade.

Oetzi represents one of the great archaeological finds of recent years. He takes his name from the Oetz Valley in which he was found - still wearing goatskin leggings and a grass cape. His people provided the basis for the later Alpine tribes.

His copper-headed axe and a quiver full of arrows were lying nearby.



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