Wounded Iceman Made Epic Final Journey, Moss Shows

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
December 4, 2008
Ötzi, the prehistoric Iceman, apparently dressed his own wounds with moss as he traversed the Alps, the first ever intestinal study of a glacier mummy shows.

Fragments of six species of moss found in his gut suggest that the ancient man used bog moss—a mildly antiseptic and highly absorbent variety—to treat an injury on his palm, scientists believe. Several conflict wounds, including an arrow wound in the shoulder, eventually killed him.

He likely used another species of moss to wrap his food.

Researchers are confident that Ötzi wasn't deliberately eating the moss, but that some of the plant matter stuck to his fingers as he ate.

"Moss is neither palatable, nor nutritious," said study lead author James Dickson, an archaeobotanist at the University of Glasgow, U.K.

"You'd need to be starving to death before you eat moss," he said.

The plant discoveries also help piece together his last journey, showing that the fit 46-year-old traveled vast distances in a short amount of time.

The study was published recently in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.

"Complete Shock"

Discovered in 1991 on a mountain glacier in South Tyrol, Italy, Ötzi is one of the world's oldest and best preserved ice mummies.

He is thought to have died from an arrow wound and severe head trauma while traveling across the Alps some 5,300 years ago.

Researchers took five samples of Ötzi's last meals—two from his small intestine, two from his colon, and one from his rectum—by passing a tube through his shriveled gut.

(Learn about the human digestive system.)

Scientists studied samples under a microscope and identified six different species of moss.

One species, Sphagnum imbricatum—commonly known as bog moss—was a huge surprise.

"It was a complete shock to find this because it doesn't grow anywhere close to where he was found," Dickson said.

The nearest location in Ötzi's day was a lowland marshy area around 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of where he was found.

Dickson and colleagues speculate that Ötzi used this highly absorbent moss to staunch the bleeding from a deep cut in the palm of his right hand.

"Sphagnum moss is well known to have antibiotic properties," said Jacqui Wood, an independent experimental archaeologist based in the U.K.

Moss Evidence

One of the mosses also revealed Ötzi's likely water sources, which were probably streams or caves.

Hymenostylium recurvirostrum only grows in moist environments on chalk or limestone rock.

"He probably ingested this in his drinking water," Dickson said.

Neckera complanata, a fan moss, also gave clues to his diet.

"The most probable explanation for this moss is that it was used to wrap the red deer and alpine ibex [a type of mountain goat] meat that he was carrying. When he ate the meat he also ate a little of the moss," Dickson said.

Allan Hall, an archaeobotanist from York University who wasn't involved with the study, agrees.

"These explanations are entirely plausible," he said.

Last Days

Together with pollen and cereals found in his gut, the moss is helping scientists piece together the route that Ötzi took in his last days of life.

They now know that he came from high in the mountains, then went down to the lowlands—where he picked up the bog moss—then returned to the highlands, covering a distance of at least 37 miles (60 kilometers) in two or three days.

Despite his relatively advanced age for the time, he was a very fit man and obviously used to going up and down hills, experts say.

"His equivalent [physique] today might be a middleweight Olympic wrestler," Dickson said.

(Related: "Iceman Wore Cattle, Sheep Hides; May Have Been a Herder" [August 21, 2008].)

Ancient Toilet Paper

Evidence from other Neolithic sites, such as Swiss and German lake villages, suggests mosses were used for a variety of purposes.

Fan mosses are very springy and were often used as bedding or to stuff cracks in walls.

The plants are also found in ancient cesspits, and are thought to have been used as a primitive form of toilet paper.

Bog moss, meanwhile, was used as a wound dressing until World War II.

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