5 Surprising Facts About Otzi the Iceman

Scholars continue to be amazed by the ancient man found frozen in the Alps.

A life-size model of Ötzi the Iceman.

A report that Ötzi the Iceman has 19 genetic relatives living in Austria is the latest in a string of surprising discoveries surrounding the famed ice mummy. Ötzi's 5,300-year-old corpse turned up on the mountain border between Austria and Italy in 1991. Here is a rundown of the latest on the world's oldest Alpine celebrity, and some of the other remarkable things we've learned about Ötzi.

(Read "Unfrozen" from the November 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

1. The Iceman has living relatives.

Living links to the Iceman have now been revealed by a new DNA study. Gene researchers looking at unusual markers on the Iceman's male sex chromosome report that they have uncovered at least 19 genetic relatives of Ötzi in Austria's Tyrol region.

The match was made from samples of 3,700 anonymous blood donors in a study led by Walther Parson at Innsbruck Medical University. Sharing a rare mutation known as G-L91, "the Iceman and those 19 share a common ancestor, who may have lived 10,000 to 12,000 years ago," Parson said.

The finding supports previous research suggesting that Ötzi and his ancestors were of farming stock. The study used Y-chromosome markers that are passed from father to son to trace the Neolithic migrations that brought farming to Europe via the Alps. Ötzi belonged to a Y-chromosome group called haplogroup G, which is rooted, like farming, in the Middle East.

The study's overall results fit the idea that the changes of the Neolithic Revolution spurred people westward into the Tyrol region, Parson said.

He is nevertheless wary of any suggestion that Ötzi's distant relatives might be a chip off the old block, either physically or in their liking for simple grain porridge.

2. He had several health issues.

Since Ötzi's discovery in an alpine glacier more than two decades ago, scientists have subjected his mummy to a full-body health check. The findings don't make pretty reading. The 40-something's list of complaints include worn joints, hardened arteries, gallstones, and a nasty growth on his little toe (perhaps caused by frostbite).

Furthermore, the Iceman's gut contained the eggs of parasitic worms, he likely had Lyme disease, and he had alarming levels of arsenic in his system (probably due to working with metal ores and copper extraction). Ötzi was also in need of a dentist—an in-depth dental examination found evidence of advanced gum disease and tooth decay. (See video: "Iceman Autopsy.")

Despite all this, and a fresh arrow wound to his shoulder, it was a sudden blow to the head that proved fatal to Ötzi.

3. He also had anatomical abnormalities.

Besides his physical ailments, the Iceman had several anatomical abnormalities. He lacked both wisdom teeth and a 12th pair of ribs. The mountain man also sported a caddish gap between his two front teeth, known as a diastema. Whether this impressed the ladies is a moot point—some researchers suspect Ötzi might have been infertile.

4. The Iceman was inked.

Ötzi's frozen mummy preserves a fine collection of Copper Age tattoos. Numbering over 50 in total, they cover him from head to foot. These weren't produced using a needle, but by making fine cuts in the skin and then rubbing in charcoal. The result was a series of lines and crosses mostly located on parts of the body that are prone to injury or pain, such as the joints and along the back. This has led some researchers to believe that the tattoos marked acupuncture points.

If so, Ötzi must have needed a lot of treatment, which, given his age and ailments, isn't so surprising. The oldest evidence for acupuncture, Ötzi's tattoos suggest that the practice was around at least 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.

5. He consumed pollen and goats.

The Iceman's final meals have served up a feast of information to scholars. His stomach contained 30 different types of pollen. Analysis of that pollen shows that Ötzi died in spring or early summer, and it has even enabled researchers to trace his movements through different mountain elevations just before he died. His partially digested last meal suggests he ate two hours before his grisly end. It included grains and meat from an ibex, a species of nimble-footed wild goat.