Ötzi loaded up on fatty food before he died

New analysis fills in details of the famous Iceman mummy’s last meal

Ötzi the Iceman

GUT FEELING  Ötzi’s stomach was covered in fungi, but researchers still managed to reveal new details about the Iceman’s last meal.

M. Samadelli/Eurac Research and South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology ©

Ötzi didn’t die hungry.

Around 5,300 years ago, the Iceman dined on wild meat and grains before meeting his end in the Italian Alps. His last meal was high in fat and optimal for a high-altitude trek, researchers report July 12 in Current Biology.

Since his mummified remains were discovered in 1991, Ötzi’s life has undergone more scrutiny than many reality TV stars. His cause of death, his fashion, his tattoos, his ax, his cholesterol and his genetic instruction book, or genome, have all made headlines (SN 3/24/12, p.5). And in 2002, DNA analysis of samples from the Iceman’s lower intestine suggested that Ötzi ate red deer, goat and grains before he died. In 2011, radiological scans revealed that the mummy’s stomach contents were still intact (SN 9/24/11, p. 8). Now researchers are back with a more in-depth look inside the mummy’s gastrointestinal tract.

SUPER FRESH Looking at biopsies of Ötzi’s stomach under a light microscope, researchers saw evidence of animal muscle fibers (shown). The researchers also noticed that meat particles from his stomach repelled water, indicative of high fat content. F. Maixner/Eurac Research’s Institute for Mummy Studies ©
Based on ancient DNA, proteins and other molecular data, the new analysis confirms the Iceman’s final menu: mountain goat ( Capra ibex ), red deer ( Cervus elaphus ), einkorn wheat ( Triticum monococcum ) and other domesticated grains. Traces of a toxic fern ( Pteridium aquilinum ) also turned up — possibly a home remedy for an upset stomach, but more likely either as part of the meal or as a wrapping for the food.

While the meal included protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids, fat makes up roughly 46 percent of the stomach contents. And most of that fat came from the goat meat. Test kitchen experiments suggest that the meat was either consumed fresh or slow-dried with smoke.

This high-fat diet probably wasn’t great for Ötzi’s genetic predisposition for heart disease, but it was ideal for the harsh mountain environment. “Even though it might not be tasty, up there you have to provide your body with energy, and fat is a really good energy source,” says study coauthor Frank Maixner of Eurac Research’s Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

AMBER WAVES Viewed under a light microscope, this piece of a wheat grain spikelet suggests that Ötzi took some seeds from domesticated wheat plants with him on his trip in the Italian Alps. F. Maixner/Eurac Research’s Institute for Mummy Studies ©

The meal could also be a sign of the times, Maixner says: Ötzi’s people were settled farmers, but when faced with colder temperatures, they may have had to fall back on hunter-gatherer ways. It’s just one meal, cautions Katie Manning of King’s College London who was not affiliated with the study. But “if you look at the palaeodietary evidence from Neolithic Europe, it is clear that wild resources continued to play an important role alongside domesticates, so hunting would have been a persistent activity, probably by specialized hunters.”

Now that researchers have a complete snapshot of the Iceman’s last meal, a census of Ötzi’s gut microbiome — the assortment of tiny organisms that made their home in the mummy’s stomach and intestines — could be next. Helicobacter pylori, a common stomach bug, has already been detected in the Iceman’s gut, and with it came hints of other inhabitants (SN: 2/6/16, p. 14). But Maixner wants to dig beyond “this tip of the iceberg.”

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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