On this day in 1991, two hikers near Hauslabjoch, high up in the icy alpine mountains between Austria and Italy, made an astounding discovery: A frozen body that eventually turned out to be 5,300 years old. It was the oldest frozen mummy ever found (as well as the oldest natural mummy ever found in Europe), and it was named Ötzi after the Ötztal valley region in which it was discovered. He–for indeed Ötzi was an Iceman and not an Icewoman–also occasionally goes by the modern names Man from Hauslabjoch or Similaun Man, and now resides in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
The two German tourists that discovered him, Helmut and Erika Simon, who were walking through the mountain range on their holidays, were understandably shocked at finding a frozen corpse. They assumed that Ötzi was a more recent casualty, as did the Austrian authorities that came to collect the cadaver and take it away, with no great ceremony. And so it was only in the morgue in Innsbruck that the body’s true age, and immense significance, was finally recoginised, at which point it became the subject of intense scientific study.
Now we know a great deal about this iceman: Ötzi had 57 tattoos, which seem to correspond to contemporary acupuncture points used in the treatment of digestive parasites and degenerative bone disease, and he also had upon his person two species of polypore mushrooms, including a birch fungus with antibacterial properties which was almost certainly used as a natural remedy. The other mushroom he had was a sort of tinder fungus used, along with other plants and flint and pyrite for sparking flames, to start fires. Then Ötzi’s frozen intestines showed his two most recent meals, one of ibex and one of red deer, which were both accompanied by grain.
In addition to his tattoos, his herbal preparations, and his meals, Ötzi’s clothes were also rather sophisticated. They included: A waterproof leather vest, a woven grass cloak, soft grass used as rudimentary socks, and snow-shoes constructed out of bear skin and deer hide. And then there were his tools: An ash-and-flint dagger, a yew-and-copper axe, a longbow, and a quiver full of arrows.
And how did he die? Shockingly, a recent CAT scan showed a lethal arrowhead lodged in Ötzi’s shoulder at the time of his death, as well as bruises and cuts on his hands, wrists, and chest, all suggesting that he was killed in a deadly skirmish with rival hunters. Indeed, the way in which he was found suggests that he chose to carefully place his possessions up against a mountain rock, and then lay down to die alongside them, unintentionally preserving evidence of his way of life for future generations of German tourists and Austrian scientists.
Because Ötzi the Iceman was the oldest natural mummy ever found in Europe, his corpse has offered archaeologists an unrivalled insight into Copper Age (or Chalcolithic) European man. His death may well have been tragic, but it has taught us a vast amount about how we used to live over five millennia ago.
Caption: Ötzi the Iceman in his refrigerated cell at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.