Murder Mystery on Ice
A prehistoric death had unnatural causes
Buried in ice for more than 5,000 years, the ancient mystery man was carved out of his Alpine resting place a decade ago. Since he was carrying an ax, a knife, a bow, and a quiver of arrows, scientists figured the iceman--nicknamed Otzi, for the Otztal Alps on the Austria-Italy border where he was found--had been a hapless hunter who froze to death while stalking his prey. But a new discovery announced last week suggests that his quarry might have been human--and that it got him first.
Using a 3-D X-ray scanning technique called computer tomography to reconstruct the position of Otzi's bones, researchers revealed an unexpected presence: a flint arrowhead nearly an inch long lodged in the man's left shoulder. They might have identified the wound earlier, but a brown spot that could have been blood was washed off shortly after Austrian authorities recovered the body. The arrow had sliced through muscle and nerve tissue, most likely rendering Otzi's left arm paralyzed. In excruciating pain but still conscious, he must have bled to death in a matter of hours before being freeze-dried and preserved by wind and snow.
The mortal shot came from below and behind the victim, but the assailant did not close in to finish off the job. That suggests Otzi may have been fleeing up the mountainside when he was hit, and that he then struggled onward, eluding his pursuer, until he collapsed. "I'm sure he died alone," says Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, who has studied the iceman. If the assassin had overtaken Otzi, he says, "this man would have robbed [him of] his equipment, especially his ax." Otzi's knife was broken when he died, and his bow and arrows were unfinished, as if he'd been desperately fashioning them to replace originals he'd just lost. Spindler believes he had narrowly escaped a violent confrontation in his village and was trying to rebuild his arsenal when his enemy caught up with him.
Hard times. Life had not been forgiving to Otzi. The middle-aged man had once broken several ribs and suffered from a fungal lung infection, intestinal worms, and arthritis. He lived during the first centuries of the Bronze Age, a period that lasted in Europe from 3500 to 1000 B.C. The continent had only basic technology then: Iron tools did not yet exist, and the wheel was just being invented. Based on material removed from his gut last year, scientists also know that Otzi's last meal, consumed up to 12 hours before his death, consisted of meat, bread, and traces of fruit.
Eduard Egarter Vigl, the curator who oversees the mummy's care and scientific study at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, says he hopes to gently defrost and probe the body to determine more precisely how long the man lived after being shot. But who attacked Otzi? And why? Archaeologists may have the weapon and the stiff, but the perp is lost to history.
This story appears in the August 6, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.