Ötzi the Iceman froze to death

New analyses of mummy show head knocks, arrow wound not lethal

Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman

DEEP FREEZE  Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman, shown here at a research center, died of exposure to cold temperatures in the Italian Alps, a new study concludes. Shoulder and head injuries may have made it difficult for the Copper Age hunter-gatherer to get around but that’s not what killed him, researchers say.

© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Samadelli/Staschitz

NEW ORLEANS — Ever since Ötzi’s mummified body was found in the Italian Alps in 1991, researchers have been trying to pin down how the 5,300-year-old Tyrolean Iceman died. It now looks like this Copper Age hunter-gatherer simply froze to death, perhaps after suffering minor blood loss from an arrow wound to his left shoulder, anthropologist Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich reported April 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

“Freezing to death is quite likely the main cause of death in this classic cold case,” Rühli said. Ötzi succumbed to exposure within anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, he estimated.

New analyses of the Iceman’s body, based on X-rays and CT scans, argue against the idea that Ötzi died from a stone arrowhead shot into his shoulder (SN: 9/6/14, p. 6). Surprisingly shallow penetration of that weapon into Ötzi’s shoulder ruptured a blood vessel but caused no major tissue damage, Rühli said. Internal bleeding totaled only about 100 milliliters, or a half cup, he and his colleagues concluded. That’s enough of a poke to cause plenty of discomfort but not death, Rühli said.

Several depressions and fractures on the Iceman’s skull also couldn’t have proven fatal, he added. Some researchers regard those injuries as signs that Ötzi was clubbed to death. Rühli’s team found that those skull injuries are more consistent with the ancient man having accidentally fallen and hit his head while walking over rough ground. The Iceman was found with fur headgear that probably helped to protect his noggin when he took a headlong tumble, Rühli suggested.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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