Ötzi was found in 1991, frozen and fantastically preserved in ice high in the Italian Alps, where he’d perished 5,300 years ago. With his tattoos and cool tools and smart outfit, rendered by artists with soulful brown eyes under a weathered brow, he became a Copper Age celebrity. Public and scientific imagination seized on the circumstances of his life — and, of course, his death.
At first, Ötzi was thought to have frozen to death, trapped by snowstorm on a mountainside. Another possibility was ritual sacrifice. But in 2001, researchers discovered an arrow in his left shoulder, bruises and cuts on his hands and chest, signs of blunt force trauma to his head. Ötzi, it appeared, was the victim of foul play.
Combined with forensic examination of locale-specific pollen grains recovered from his body, a possible narrative of Ötzi’s final days emerged. He had strayed from his tribe’s territory, perhaps as part of a raiding party, then been chased into the mountains. Having killed two of his assailants, he carried a wounded comrade on his shoulder. After a days-long chase, one so frantic that Ötzi didn’t have time to eat, leaving his stomach empty, they’d caught and killed him.
But the new study, published August 17 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, shows that Ötzi’s stomach wasn’t empty. Using a CT scanner to look anew at Ötzi’s body, researchers led by Albert Zink of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman determined that what was thought to be part of Ötzi’s colon is actually his stomach, having shrunk and shifted after his death.
In other parts of Ötzi’s colon, where food consumed days before his death remained, archaeologists had already found traces of red deer, ibex and grain. As for his stomach, Zink and colleagues are still analyzing the contents — but whatever they were, Ötzi’s last meal was a big one. That doesn’t fit with the idea of Ötzi dying on the run, killed after a skirmish.
“The Iceman wouldn’t have been able to have a large meal under the heavy stress of a chase,” wrote Zink and colleagues. “It much more appears that he considered the situation safe enough to rest and eat a heavy meal after the strenuous ascent. Shortly afterward, he could have moved a short distance away from his place of rest and was killed by a surprise ambush from behind.”
But as Ötzi’s recent archaeological history has demonstrated, this almost certainly won’t be the last word on his death. Like any good murder mystery, Ötzi’s remains unsolved.