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.

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