Wounds Suggest Iceman Was Stabbed in the Back, Fought Attacker

Rory Carroll
The Guardian Unlimited
March 26, 2002

Scientists have discovered that the world's oldest and best preserved mummy, known as Oetzi the Iceman, was engaged in hand-to-hand combat shortly before perishing in the Alps 5,300 years ago.

Two wounds to his right hand and wrist show he was stabbed while trying to defend himself with a dagger against an attacker. The finding bolsters theories that Bronze Age tribes waged war on mountain peaks, and scotches a recent claim that Oetzi may have been a human sacrifice. Instead, he may have been a warrior or the victim of an ambush who fought hard to save his life.

The findings were revealed by the archaeological museum in the northern Italian town of Bolzano, which keeps the mummy in a refrigerated room. "This is very exciting. It tells us that Oetzi was involved in a battle, or at least in hand-to-hand combat of some kind," said Eduard Egarter Vigl, the main caretaker of the corpse.

A sharp object, possibly a flint-tipped spear or dagger, punctured the base of the Iceman's thumb, shredding skin and muscle right to the bone. A second blow damaged a bone on his wrist. The thumb wound had no scar, meaning it was fresh when the Iceman died.

The revelation is the latest piece in a puzzle that began in 1991, when two German hikers found a corpse in an Alpine glacier bordering Italy and Austria. The discovery of the mummy 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) above sea level caused a sensation because of the astonishing state of preservation and the insight it offered into pre-history.

It has been determined that the Iceman was 46 and was in a valley on the Italian side of the mountains hours before ascending the glacier with an unfinished bow, arrows, and a dagger.

Forensic scientists and archaeologists have become detectives, conceiving and discarding theories about why and how he died. The discovery last year of an arrow blade in his left shoulder showed his death was violent, not the result of drowning, hypothermia, or a fall.

Some researchers speculated that he was a sacrifice to appease the gods or the victim of an accident or a long-range ambush. The injured hand shows instead that Oetzi knew he was in danger and had time to defend himself.

One of the German hikers, Alois Pirpamer, disclosed that Oetzi's dagger was not beside the corpse, as previously thought, but in his right hand, suggesting the killer was close. That detail prompted the scientist to reexamine the hand, which revealed a 15-millimeter-deep (one-half-inch-deep) zigzag wound.

It is thought that Oetzi bled to death after the arrow shattered the scapula and damaged nerves and blood vessels before lodging near the lung.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.