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Ill-fated ice man may have suffered two assaults

Jan. 28, 2009
Courtesy Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität 
München
and World Science staff

Scientists say they’ve re­vealed a new chap­ter in a mur­der case some 5,300 years old, re­con­struct­ing the tim­ing of in­ju­ries that the world’s old­est “ice mum­my” suf­fered in his dis­mal fi­nal days.

Ötzi being exam­ined by a doc­tor. (Im­age cour­tesy Lud­wig-Ma­xi­mil­ians-Uni­ver­si­tät Mün­chen)


The man now dubbed Ötzi “en­dured at least two in­jur­ing events in his last days, which may imply two sep­a­rate at­tacks,” said An­dre­as Ner­lich, the study lead­er and patholo­g­ist at Lud­wig Max­i­mil­ian Uni­ver­s­ity in Mu­nich, Germa­ny.

The nat­u­rally mum­mi­fied body was found in 1991 in the Schnal­stal glac­i­er in the Ötz­tal Alps, near the Aus­tri­a-Italy bor­der. Ötzi is giv­ing sci­ence crit­i­cal in­forma­t­ion about late Stone Age life. His cop­per axe, for ex­am­ple, re­veals that met­al­work­ing was much more ad­vanced in that era than was pre­vi­ously as­sumed, sci­en­tists say.

“Although the ice mum­my has al­ready been stud­ied at great length, there are still new re­sults to be gleaned,” said Ner­lich. “The crime sur­round­ing Ötzi is as thrill­ing as ev­er!”

Not for Ötzi, though. “Some time ago, we de­tected a deep cut wound on Ötz­i’s hand that he must have sur­vived for at least a cou­ple of days,” said Ner­lich. “An­other team at about the same time found an ar­row tip in Ötz­i’s left arm­pit. The shaft of the ar­row was mis­sing, but there is an en­try wound on the back.” 

Ötzi probably died of in­ter­nal bleed­ing be­cause the ar­row hit a main ar­tery, the sci­en­tists added. He sur­vived the ar­row wound in his back for a few min­utes to a few hours, and al­so suf­fered a blunt-object b­low to the back shortly be­fore his death, ac­cord­ing to Ner­lich and col­leagues; the hand slash is days old­er.

A few cen­time­ters be­low the en­try wound they de­tected an ad­di­tion­al slight skin dis­col­ora­t­ion, probably caused by the b­low, the re­search­ers said. In both cases, the re­search­ers, us­ing new de­tec­tion meth­ods, de­tected bleed­ing that was ul­ti­mately fa­tal.

Above the spine, they added, are more dis­col­ora­t­ions not as­so­ci­at­ed with bleed­ing. These probably oc­curred af­ter death, due to the in­ter­ment, for ex­am­ple, said Ner­lich, who worked with col­leagues in­clud­ing Ed­u­ard Egarter-Vigl, head of the In­sti­tute for Pa­thol­o­gy in Bol­za­no, It­a­ly.

“Ötzi had only shortly sur­vived the ar­row wound and the b­low on the back,” Ner­lich sum­ma­rized. “At least a cou­ple of days be­fore his death, how­ev­er, he sus­tained a se­vere cut wound on his right hand. Over seve­ral days, then, Ötzi suf­fered at least two in­jur­ing events.”

In the 1990s, Aus­tri­an sci­en­tists found that Ötz­i’s last meal was­n’t much to lift the spir­its, ei­ther: a bit of hard bread. Klaus Öggl, a bot­a­nist from the Uni­ver­s­ity of Inns­bruck, Aus­tria, has said that it seems Ötzi died hav­ing wan­dered from a rel­a­tively hos­pi­ta­ble val­ley—car­ry­ing al­most no food—to try to cross a harsh moun­tain pass, but sci­en­tists aren’t sure why he did it.

Nerlich’s study appears in the Jan­uary on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal In­ten­sive Care Med­i­cine.


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Researchers say they’ve revealed a new chapter in a murder case some 5,300 years old, reconstructing the timing of injuries that the world’s oldest “ice mummy” suffered in his dismal final days. The man now dubbed Ötzi “endured at least two injuring events in his last days, which may imply two separate attacks,” said Andreas Nerlich, the study leader and pathologist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. The naturally mummified body was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near the Austria-Italy border. Ötzi is giving science critical information about late Stone Age life. His copper axe, for example, reveals that metalworking was already much more advanced in that era than was previously assumed, scientists say. “Although the ice mummy has already been studied at great length, there are still new results to be gleaned,” said Nerlich. “The crime surrounding Ötzi is as thrilling as ever!” Not for Ötzi, though. “Some time ago, we detected a deep cut wound on Ötzi’s hand that he must have survived for at least a couple of days,” said Nerlich. “Another team at about the same time found an arrow tip in Ötzi’s left armpit. The shaft of the arrow was missing, but there is an entry wound on the back.” Ötzi probably died of internal bleeding because the arrow hit a main artery, the scientists added. He survived the arrow wound in his back for a few minutes to a few hours, and also suffered a blunt-object blow to the back shortly before his death, according to Nerlich and colleagues; the hand slash is days older. A few centimeters below the entry wound they detected an additional slight skin discoloration, probably caused by the blow, the researchers said. In both cases, the researchers, using new detection methods, detected bleeding that was ultimately fatal. Above the spine are more discolorations that not associated with bleeding. They probably occurred after the man’s death, due to his interment, for example, said Nerlich, who worked with colleagues including Eduard Egarter-Vigl, head of the Institute for Pathology in Bolzano, Italy. “Ötzi had only shortly survived the arrow wound and the blow on the back,” Nerlich summarized. “At least a couple of days before his death, however, he sustained a severe cut wound on his right hand. Over several days, then, Ötzi suffered at least two injuring events – which could point towards two separate attacks.” In the 1990s, Austrian scientists found that Ötzi’s last meal wasn’t much something to lift the spirits, either: a bit of hard bread. Klaus Oeggl, a botanist from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, has said that it seems Ötzi died having wandered from a relatively hospitable valley—carrying little water or food—to try to cross a harsh mountain pass, but scientists don’t know why he did it.