The Iceman’s last meal: goat

Researchers examine the stomach contents of a famous 5,300-year-old mummy

Outside of the Nancy Grace show, few people have had their final hours as poked, prodded and scrutinized as much as Ötzi, the “Iceman” who died high in the Italian Alps 5,300 years ago.

Scientists have only now discovered the stomach of the 5,300-year-old Iceman mummy, because many of the internal organs had shrunk and moved from their original positions. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Hikers discovered his frozen, mummified body in 1991. Two decades later, scientists have a good idea of what happened to Ötzi: Fleeing pursuers, he retreated to the mountains only to be shot in the back with an arrow. But even today, the Iceman is still giving up surprises.

New, more detailed radiological images of the mummy have revealed his stomach for the first time and shown that he didn’t die hungry. Within an hour of his murder, Ötzi ate a big meal mostly of the wild goat called ibex, reports a team led by Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy.

“We now think that he must have felt quite safe, because otherwise he wouldn’t have had this big meal,” Zink says. “This was a really big surprise.” The work was published online August 17 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The Iceman may have eaten meat fairly regularly, the scientists suggest; the new scans also uncovered three gallstones, a sign that his diet could have been richer in animal products than researchers thought. And newfound signs of heavy strain in Ötzi’s knees may mean he walked a lot in mountainous terrain — as opposed to being a valley dweller who wandered up high just before his death.

In life, Ötzi was a brown-eyed, long-haired man in his mid-40s who stood 5 foot 3 inches tall, average height for the Copper Age. In death, he became one of the world’s best-preserved mummies, thanks to the ice that encased him soon after his murder. When climbers found Ötzi sticking out of a retreating glacier front in September 1991, scientists rushed his body into a climate- and humidity-controlled cell so he wouldn’t thaw.

Until now, the closest researchers had gotten to Ötzi’s last meal was locating and taking samples from his colon. It contained the remains of several meals, including the meat of red deer and ibex along with vegetables and grains like einkorn, a local wheat.

But in 2005 Zink’s team took new and more detailed X-ray computed tomography images of the mummy, quickly sliding the frozen corpse in and out of a hospital scanner. Those images revealed an organ once thought to be part of the colon but now recognizable as the long-sought stomach. After death, many of the Iceman’s organs shrank and moved from their original locations, and nobody had recognized the stomach because it had shifted into the upper abdomen, Zink says.

In November, the researchers pulled some of Ötzi’s stomach contents out through an incision in the abdominal wall. Preliminary DNA analysis of the fatty tissue shows it came from an ibex.

“What we have found is that he consumed an omnivorous diet,” says Klaus Oeggl, a paleobotanist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria who is analyzing the nonmeat parts of the stomach contents. The Iceman’s last several meals contained a mix of meat, vegetables and grains, but with a lot more meat in his final meal.

To Zink, a full stomach suggests that Ötzi wasn’t actively fleeing from his pursuers just before he died. Oeggl, however, speculates that the Iceman could have gotten a head start on those chasing him, then sat down for a break before an enemy surprised and shot him from behind.

“I’ve been on top of this particular mountain, and it’s an ideal place to stop and have a rest, maybe have something to eat,” adds Frank Rühli, head of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Once the arrow hit Ötzi, Rühli and other scientists reported in 2007, it tore open an artery and sent him into fatal hemorrhagic shock. He died on the spot.

Other evidence supports the theory that the Iceman had been under stress in the days before he died. In his last 33 hours, Ötzi moved from up near the timber line to down among the trees and up again into the realm of ice, as shown by pollen grains from various alpine plant species lodged in his body.  

Ötzi also had a deep laceration on his right hand that he received at least several days before he died.

One factor that may have made the Iceman’s life uncomfortable — though it certainly didn’t kill him — was the state of his teeth. Rühli and his colleagues recently took a close look at Ötzi’s teeth and found that the Iceman had a lot of cavities. “The whole oral health of the Iceman was much worse than we had thought before,” says Rühli.

In October, Iceman scientists will gather in Bolzano for a 20th anniversary symposium to talk about what they’ve learned about the life and death of Ötzi. That will probably include the first complete analysis of the Iceman’s nuclear DNA, which has been finished but not yet formally published.

Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.

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