A new look at Ötzi the Iceman’s DNA reveals new ancestry and other surprises

Ötzi was balding, dark-skinned and didn’t have ancestors from the Caspian steppe

An overhead photo of the Iceman Ötzi mummy lying on a white table.

Though the Iceman mummy’s skin is obviously dark, scientists used to think that was a result of being frozen in a glacier for more than 5,000 years. A new genetic analysis reveals that Ötzi really was dark-skinned.

Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum, Marco Samadelli/EURAC, Gregor Staschitz

A new look at the Iceman’s DNA reveals that his ancestors weren’t who scientists previously thought.

In 2012, scientists compiled a complete picture of Ötzi’s genome; it suggested that the frozen mummy found melting out of a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps had ancestors from the Caspian steppe (SN: 2/28/12). But something didn’t add up.

The Iceman is about 5,300 years old. Other people with steppe ancestry didn’t appear in the genetic record of central Europe until about 4,900 years ago. Ötzi “is too old to have that type of ancestry,” says archaeogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The mummy “was always an outlier.”

Krause and colleagues put together a new genetic instruction book for the Iceman. The old genome was heavily contaminated with modern people’s DNA, the researchers report August 16 in Cell Genomics. The new analysis reveals that “the steppe ancestry is completely gone.”

But the Iceman still has oddities. About 90 percent of Ötzi’s genetic heritage comes from Neolithic farmers, an unusually high amount compared with other Copper Age remains, Krause says.

The Iceman’s new genome also reveals he had male-pattern baldness and much darker skin than artistic representations suggest. Genes conferring light skin tones didn’t become prevalent until 4,000 to 3,000 years ago when early farmers started eating plant-based diets and didn’t get as much vitamin D from fish and meat as hunter-gathers did, Krause says.

As Ötzi and other ancient people’s DNA illustrate, the skin color genetic changes took thousands of years to become commonplace in Europe.

“People that lived in Europe between 40,000 years ago and 8,000 years ago were as dark as people in Africa, which makes a lot of sense because [Africa is] where humans came from,” he says. “We have always imagined that [Europeans] became light-skinned much faster. But now it seems that this happened actually quite late in human history.”

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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