In 1991 hikers who were climbing the mountains that straddle Austria and Italy discovered in melting snow the remains of a man that had been preserved in a glacier for 5,000 years.
An examination last year showed that an arrowhead was embedded in the left shoulderan injury that clearly could not have been self-inflicted. But who did it, and why?
Now, based on new evidence, an archaeologist affiliated with the National Geographic Society has proposed that the "Iceman" was killed as a sacrifice to the gods.
"I know it's controversial," Johan Reinhard said of his theory, of which a number of experts are skeptical. "But it's time to reexamine the evidence from a different perspective. Let's look at these artifacts not only relative to each other but also within social, sacred, and geographic contexts."
Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, is an expert on cultures of the Andes, the Himalaya, and other regions and an authority on mummies and ritual sacrifices. Among the many mummies he has discovered is the Inca "Ice Maiden," which was found on the frozen summit of Peru's Mount Ampato in 1995 and determined to be a victim of sacrifice.
Reinhard said the arrowhead wound, which was overlooked in previous examinations, makes it clear that the Iceman was shot in the back. "It might have been murder," said Reinhard, "or it might have been ritual sacrifice." His hypothesis about the Iceman's fate is presented in the February issue of National Geographic.
The Iceman's remains were found in a naturally formed trench on a prominent pass between two of the highest peaks in the Ötztal Alps. "This is the kind of place where people from mountain cultures have traditionally made offerings to their mountain gods," said Reinhard.
"We know that mountain worship was important in prehistoric Europe during the Bronze Age," he explained, "and there is good evidence that it played a role earlier, in the Copper Age," when the Iceman lived.
Because the body was found in a trench, researchers speculated earlier that the man died when he sought refuge from bad weather. Reinhard finds that, as well as other theories about the cause of the Iceman's death, unconvincing. "The trench is not deep and is at a high point of the pass," he pointed out. "It would have been a poor place to sit out a storm."
Reinhard thinks the Iceman may have been buried in the trench by whoever killed him, which would help explain why the body was so well preserved, as it would not have been if exposed to the elements.
Among the questions surrounding the Iceman's death is why a copper ax, with its bindings and handle still intact, was left with the body.
Murderers would likely have taken something so useful with them, said Reinhard. He believes the ax may have been deliberately left with the body during a ritual of sacrifice to serve the victim in the afterlife or as a tribute to the gods.