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- December 30, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 25
The 4,600-Year-Old Man
Silent for Centuries, This Freeze-Dried Ancestral Traveler Now Speaks to Us from Across the Ages
Ancient humans are periodically exhumed from places like the peat bogs of England. Defrosting ice has yielded other such accidental time tourists as the 25,000-year-old Beresovka mastodon found by a Siberian reindeer hunter in 1900. No find, though, has been as near mint as Iceman. We know the color of his eyes (blue), his grooming habits (fingernails neatly trimmed) and his taste in body decorations (intricate tattoos on back and knees; stone amulet). We know his wardrobe (fine-stitched leather coat, hay-lined leather boots) and his choices in gear (fire flint, stone knife, bronze-headed ax and 14 arrows; his bow is still missing). This trove, found near a Tirolean trail in September, will expand what we know about the lives of the region's Bronze Agers, mostly farmers (they raised com and barley as well as cattle and pigs) plus a few miners who dug for copper (used to strengthen tools and weapons). Notes Dr. Stuart Needham, British Museum curator of Bronze Age antiquities: "Goods put in a grave are controlled by ritual. Here for the first time is a man in his normal garb with a set of equipment that he would often carry around with him."
We also know that though there were only about 108 million humans on Earth at the same time as Iceman, some had already learned a lot. Almost 400 summers earlier, the Egyptians had built the Great Sphinx and Cheops's Pyramid; a few centuries later the Chinese formulated a 360-day lunar calendar. Yet Iceman died well before the monument builders of England had started on Stonehenge and 2½ millennia before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Iceman now lies at the University of Innsbruck in a room kept at 21°F and 70 percent humidity. Soon a team of more than 60 scientists drawn from across Europe will begin work. They will carbon-date him to pinpoint more precisely when he lived. They will analyze his DNA for comparison with that of the region's modern inhabitants. They will sample his skin for melanin concentration, expected to reveal tanning patterns and even the time of year he died. They will cheek his bones for stresses that might suggest occupation and his organs for evidence of diet, disease and parasites. The amount of tissue studied will be small. Explains project head Prof. Konrad Spindler: "We want to leave as much material as possible for later generations, when they will have even more sophisticated methods of examining these remains."
It was from the first detailed photographs of Iceman that Frank Bender of Philadelphia created the bust at left. Bender, 50, whose works have appeared on TV's America's Most Wanted, has his own diagnosis of cause of death: "Because of the marks on the back of the skull and the way the nose is pushed up, I think he slid down between two pieces of ice and was wedged there."
The official autopsy report isn't due until spring. Meanwhile, South Tiroleans are milking tourist schillings and lire from the corpse they have nicknamed Otzi (alter the Ötztal region; his real name, as well as the pre-Latin, pre-German language in which it was spoken, is lost for all time). There is a museum planned for Vent, Austria, the town nearest the find, that will house Otzifacts, and a hotelier has recorded a synthesizer-backed tune with the catchy refrain "Otzi here, Otzi there, Otzi Otzi everywhere." Clothing boutiques are dressing Icemannequins for their window displays, and it is even possible to buy marzipan Otzis.
Such indignities no longer matter to Iceman, who went out one day a man of his time and returned to the world, many centuries later, a curiosity. Why was he high up in the Tirols—to hunt (hence the arrows) or to trade goods with a settlement on the other side of the mountains? No one can ever know for certain. Did he suffer before his death? How long after his disappearance before he was missed? Was he mourned—by wife, children, friends, tribe? Egyptian mummies. wrapped in gauze and ritual, do not invite such speculation; nor do Neanderthal bones. The power of Iceman lies in his eerie preservation and in the fact that he was, like most of us, an ordinary human being, nothing more, nothing less. We look back—and we see ourselves.
April 25, 2015
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