Prehistoric ‘Iceman’ gets ceremonial twist

Rather than dying alone high in the Alps, Ötzi may have been ritually buried there

A prehistoric man whose naturally mummified body was discovered frozen in the Italian Alps may have been toted up the mountain by his comrades, a new study suggests.

THIS WON’T HURT –tzi the Iceman, shown being examined by a researcher, lived more than 5,000 years ago. New research suggests he may have been buried by kinfolk in the Italian Alps. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
SCATTER PLOT THICKENS | Scientists diagrammed items found around the Iceman at his discovery site. A green rectangle marks the proposed stone burial platform, and artifacts are shown in red: a grass mat (a), backpack (b), ax (c), bow (d), birch bark vessel (e), dagger (f), quiver (g) and cap (h). Blue diamonds and yellow crosses denote other Iceman-related finds, including a pelt and hair clumps. A. Vanzetti et al/Antiquities

The Iceman, also nicknamed Ötzi, lived between 5,350 and 5,100 years ago as part of a genetically distinct European population (SN Online: 10/30/08). Hikers noticed the Iceman poking out of a glacier in 1991.

Since the 2001 discovery of a stone point in the Iceman’s left shoulder, many scientists have assumed that someone shot and killed Ötzi with an arrow as he attempted to flee through a mountain pass after a disastrous fight. From this perspective, the Iceman preserves a brutal prehistoric moment in time.

But a new analysis of the distribution of Ötzi’s belongings around his body, published in the September issue of Antiquity, raises the possibility that he perished near kin living at low altitudes, who took him to the mountains for a final send-off as soon as the weather permitted.

Ötzi originally was placed on a group of stones that formed a platform about six meters, or 20 feet, uphill from the spot where hikers found him splayed in a gully, assert archaeologist Alessandro Vanzetti of the Sapienza University of Rome and his colleagues. Snow and ice that originally held the body in place partly thawed during occasional warm periods, creating a watery mix that swept the Iceman and some of his effects, including a wooden bow and copper ax, off the platform, the scientists propose.     

The body then gradually rolled downhill. Lodged against a boulder in the gully, Ötzi’s left arm twisted across his body at an odd angle, they assert.

“Many researchers have never questioned the ‘disaster’ theory of the Iceman’s death, so they haven’t searched for the original focus of scattering of the body and artifacts,” says study coauthor Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome.

Archaeobotanist Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, reported in 2000 that high concentrations of a binding material used in Ötzi’s equipment appeared not just near his body but on a nearby ridge that includes the burial platform proposed by Vanzetti’s team.

Oeggl agrees that warming and freezing cycles caused the Iceman’s body to move from an initial resting place on the ridge to the gully. But no compelling evidence demonstrates that stones on the ridge were placed there to form a burial platform, he says.

Still, Oeggl says, “This new paper for the first time discusses a burial hypothesis in a substantial way.”

Ötzi probably died in the mountains alone and close to where he suffered a fatal injury, argues biological anthropologist Albert Zink, head of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. The Iceman’s joints and spine display no dislocations that would have resulted from a downhill slide. Intact blood clots in his arrow wound would show damage if the body had been carted up the mountain, Zink adds.

If Zink is correct, warming and freezing cycles should have randomly spread out his belongings, Bondioli counters. Instead, a mathematical analysis of the position of artifacts recovered around Ötzi reveals two main clumps of items, one at the proposed stone platform and another in the gully where his body lay.

A backpack frame rested on the platform, trapped by a protruding rock. Clumps of human and animal hair, plant fragments, splinters of arrow shafts and an ax lay nearby.

Remains of a grass mat, regarded as an overcoat by many investigators, were found near Ötzi’s body. Vanzetti’s group suspects the mat was part of a funeral shroud.

Ötzi’s belongings include an unfinished wooden bow and arrow shafts lacking points, which make sense as burial offerings because a hunter could not have used them, the researchers add.

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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