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Ötzi Wondering if He's Being Followed (Artist's Reconstruction)Ötzi Wondering if He's Being Followed (Artists Reconstructing)Ötzi's Axe: Priceless Then and NowThe View from Ötzi's Last Meal

April 4th, 2017

The Iceman Goeth

BY Christian Ford

Chances are that you’ve heard of the Iceman, even if you can’t pronounce his nickname, Ötzi.  (Tell your lips and tongue to say “E,” but instead make the sound of “O” and you’ll be on the right path.) In any case, Ötzi was the copper age man who died in the Tyrolean Alps over 5,000 years ago, and then froze solid until his icefield melted in 1991, yielding the most well-preserved natural mummy ever discovered.  They’ve been studying him for a quarter century now, and new things keep coming.

The museum where Ötzi resides recently convinced a noted Italian police detective to make an attempt to “solve” Ötzi’s murder.  That’s right, the Iceman was the victim of foul play high on his alp and the Italian detective makes a strong case for the events leading up to it. But what I want to focus on is Ötzi’s last meal, which was preserved with him, downed only one-half hour before his number came up.

I suppose we should get the snark out of the way first and note that Ötzi was not a practitioner of the paleo diet and nor, for that matter was he gluten free. His health regimen, if such we can call it, was centered not around diet, but around movement.  In his last two days, Ötzi did some serious hiking, from what I would assume was an alpine meadow at 6500 feet above sea level, down to a village on the valley floor and then back up on his final climb, to over ten thousand feet. We know this because Ötzi unwittingly collected pollen as he traveled, and the different environments left their traces on him, a fact made easier to detect because all this happened as spring was shading into summer and plants were in full bloom.

When Ötzi paused for what would be his last meal, he had ibex,  an alpine mountain goat. There was a vegetable course in the form of bracken, a kind of fern that we might better recognize by its current moniker, fiddlehead. He also had a fat which might have come from either bacon or cheese and finally he had his daily bread (or possibly a porridge) made from Einkorn wheat.

But if we can relate Ötzi’s local diet, we’d have a much tougher time when it comes to his dry goods and hardware, because (almost) everything he carried with him was also locally sourced.  The clothes he wore closest to his skin, his undergarments, if you will, came from goats and sheep that were at least partially domesticated. He had sophisticated shoes which suggest that the profession of cobbler already existed, and they were made of bearskin soles with deer hide uppers and a soft grass padding that was the equivalent of a sock. His shoelaces were made from domesticated cattle and the quiver which held his arrows was of wild deer hide. He had a bearskin hat suggestive of the ones that the guards of Buckingham Palace still wear, complete with chinstrap.

He had an incomplete longbow, perhaps half a day’s work from completion, and it was made of yew, still the traditional wood of longbows millennia later when English bowmen ended the age of chivalry at Agincourt with a technological innovation that was already in Ötzi’s hands. His arrows were dogwood, the preferred wood that is still used today. He had a medicinal fungus and another remarkable thing, his equivalent of a Zippo lighter, a kind of horse-hoof fungus that can be used as a firestarter.

His clothes were still on his back and his meal was still in his stomach when someone came along and put an arrow into Ötzi’s back, although “came along” is probably not right considering this was 10,000 feet up in the mountains and chances of randomly encountering a murderous adversary seem small.  On the other hand, the idea that someone tracked him up from the well-populated valley floor where he had been only a day before seems like a more plausible story, especially, as the Italian detective points out, because Ötzi had been in, and likely won, a fight.

While the film noir aspect of Ötzi’s life hopefully doesn’t resonate with our modern day experience, much of the rest of the snapshot of his life does. Here was a man who went on an ambitious hike and when he got up into the high, clear mountain air, with his legs tired and the thinness of the atmosphere in his chest, he stopped to have a well-earned and healthy meal, and perhaps he even cooked it to have the succor of something hot. How many of us have had this exact same experience, albeit clad in fabrics made of petroleum instead of semi-domesticated sheep?  His last meal is recognizable, too, right down to 21st century-dining trends that make possibly poisonous ferns like bracken a desirable part of dinner.  Five thousand years later, we’re still eating bread, we’re still luxuriating in cheese and bacon and we’re still making meat part of the deal.  And, in a final detail that is depressingly familiar, we are also still killing each other.

Now there’s one thing that I’ve left out of this narrative of extreme localness, and that was Ötzi’s axe.  It was surely his prize possession, useful, valuable and a significant status symbol all at the same time, mostly because of its blade of almost completely pure copper.  Though that metal was worked in the valleys of Ötzi’s home terrain, and evidence of smelting copper is found in the high levels of arsenic in his body and hair, the metal in his axe was imported from central Italy. I suppose you could say that Ötzi is like us in this way, too, with a weakness for luxury imports.

It’s remarkable artifact, the only one of its kind in the world and it’s all the more curious for being left with the body.  Because, while the killer retrieved his arrow from Ötzi, he did not take the priceless axe lying beside his victim.  The curators of Ötzi’s museum have a theory, namely that the axe was — like every man-made artifact back then — a work as individual and specific as a fingerprint.  For the killer to return to the village with it would have been no different than wearing a t-shirt reading “I Killed Ötzi, Ask Me How.”  So he left Ötzi and his axe with the blade that gleamed like gold, and returned from where he had come, to a society where Ötzi was known and where there were people who would have cared about his fate and perhaps cared enough to want to avenge him.

This, in other words, was an assassination, a killing of a man who was, by the standards of his day, rich and important.  His attacker, whatever his (or possibly her) motivation, was of lower status, someone who could not “own” the deed and hope to survive the machinations of a society which valued Ötzi.  And that is as far as we get before the facts shade into our imaginations.

You’d think that pondering the motivations of a 5,000 year old killing would be an exercise in pure speculation, and you might be right.  But so much of Ötzi’s last days is so familiar, so unchangingly human, that it doesn’t seem a stretch to think that we might understand what happened.  After all, history is almost entirely the story of the rich and powerful lording it over the little people, and going on lording it over the little people.  Until, that is, the day that the little people decide they’ve had enough.


Ötzi in his Museum by OtziTheIceman
Ötzi’s Creators by Simon Claessen
Ötzi’s Axe by OtziTheIceman
Ötzi’s Vista by OtziTheIceman