Ötzi the mummified Iceman actually froze to death

New analysis contradicts earlier assessment he had died of injuries

Ötzi, this Copper Age hunter-gatherer, had life threatening shoulder and head injuries. But that’s not what killed him, a new study concludes.

SOUTH TYROL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY/EURAC/SAMADELLI/STASCHITZ

NEW ORLEANS, La. — In 1991, hikers in the high Alps along the Austrian-Italian border discovered the remains of a man frozen in the ice for some 5,300 years. What had killed this man — nicknamed, Ötzi (OOT-see) the Iceman — has remained a mystery. A new analysis comes to a fairly simple conclusion: It was the weather.

“Freezing to death is quite likely the main cause of death in this classic cold case,” reports Frank Rühli. An anthropologist, he works at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Ötzi had been a Copper Age hunter-gatherer. And it appears that the extreme cold killed him within anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Rühli shared his team’s new assessment April 20, here, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Ötzi had a range of injuries. In fact, some analyses had hinted he might have been the earliest known murder victim. After all, he had been shot. A stone arrowhead remained in his left shoulder. He also had a series of head wounds.

Researchers have now subjected his remains to new forensic analyses. These included X-rays and CT scans. They show the stone weapon did not penetrate far into the shoulder. It ruptured a blood vessel but caused no major damage, Rühli reports. There was internal bleeding. It totaled only about 100 milliliters, however — maybe half a cup. That was enough of a poke to cause plenty of discomfort but not death, Rühli says.

As for the head wounds, some researchers had argued they signaled Ötzi had been clubbed to death. There were several depressions and fractures on the Iceman’s skull. Still, they wouldn’t have proven fatal, Rühli said. Those injuries were more likely due to an accident. He could just have hit his head after a fall while walking over rough ground. The Iceman had been found, face down, wearing fur headgear. That fur likely cushioned his noggin when he took a final headlong tumble, Rühli suggests.

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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