Iceman Wore Cattle, Sheep Hides; May Have Been a Herder

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 21, 2008
The clothes of the world's oldest intact human mummy suggest the Iceman lived in a relatively advanced farming society and may even have been an Alpine herdsman, a new study says.

More than 5,000 years ago, the Iceman—also called Ötzi—donned a coat and leggings of Neolithic sheep hair, according to data from a new type of laser-assisted chemical analysis.

His moccasins were not made of bearskin, as previously believed. Instead they were ancient cattle skin from the kinds of seasonally migrating animals cared for by herdsmen in the region of the Alps where he was discovered, the study says.

"Accoutrement mainly made from domesticated species is proving access to these animals, which is an indication for a more progressive [pastoral-agricultural] society," said lead researcher Klaus Hollemeyer of Saarland University in Germany.

If his clothes were "exclusively made from wild game, this would be a sign for [a more primitive] gatherer-hunter society with no access to domesticated species like sheep, goat, or cattle," Hollemeyer said by email.

Botanical evidence also supports the theory the Iceman was in contact with agriculture. Food residue studies suggest that his contemporaries enjoyed barley and an early form of wheat called einkorn that may have been baked as primitive bread.

The new findings will appear in September in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

Murder in the Mountains

One of the world's most famous—and best-preserved—mummies, the 5,300-year-old corpse was discovered by hikers in 1991 on a melting glacier in the South Tyrol region of the Alps, along the border between Italy and Austria.

(Related story: "Alps Glaciers Gone by 2050, Expert Says" [January 23, 2007])

His identity has been the subject of spirited debate ever since, as has the story of his violent death in a rocky hollow some 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) above sea level.

The unfortunate Iceman was shot in the back with an arrow—the head of which remains lodged in his corpse—that lacerated a major artery below his collarbone and likely caused him to bleed to death in a matter of minutes.

Ötzi's skull also bears the telltale cracks of a severe blunt trauma from a blow or a fall onto rocks—perhaps as a result of the arrow wound.

It's unclear which wound actually did in Ötzi first—or whether it was a combination of the two.

Why he was killed that day on a high mountain pass is even murkier.

Valuable objects found with the Iceman's body, including a knife and copper-bladed axe, appear to eliminate robbery as a murder motive.

Some believe that Ötzi may have been the victim of ritual sacrifice.

Others suggest a political power struggle in which the Iceman was an aging leader supplanted by violent young rivals.

Innovative Techniques

Though the full story of Ötzi's death will probably never be known, his clothes may offer a clearer picture of what his life was like.

Hollemeyer and colleagues used a recently developed mass spectrometry technique to study fermented proteins found in the prehistoric hairs of Ötzi's clothing and match them against those found in living animals.

Such structural proteins sometimes remain intact in archaeological samples after the DNA has become unusable, Hollemeyer said.

Wolfgang Müller of the University of London also is studying Ötzi but was not involved with the current research.

"I think in some ways it does fit nicely with the idea that he was [a herder]," Müller said of Hollemeyer and his team's findings.

"But at the same time, this theory fell out of favor with certain people, and I don't think there is really a consensus on what this guy [Ötzi] was really up to."

Müller is currently testing a scrap of Ötzi's fingernail for signs that he may have been involved with copper smelting or other metallurgy.

Müller and Hollemeyer have managed to unlock new secrets from a mummy that has been extensively studied.

"It's obvious that many [technologies] are becoming possible now that weren't possible 17 years ago when he was found," Müller said. "That's a huge time in science, so I'm not surprised."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.