Ötzi the Iceman: The famous frozen mummy

Ötzi the Iceman is the well-preserved, 5,300-year-old mummy that caused an international sensation when it was dug out of a glacier high in the Italian Alps in 1991.

Since that time, the naturally mummified individual — whom the press named Ötzi because he was found in the mountains above the Ötztal Valley — has continued to attract intense public interest and professional scrutiny as the man’s mummified remains, the clothes he wore and the implements he carried have been studied over the past few decades.



Indeed, Ötzi’s discovery ranks as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

“He is so important because, for the first time, we have the possibility of knowing a Copper Age individual who ԀiҽԀ in the same situation as he had lived,” said Katharina Hersel, a spokesperson for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi is housed.


However, as with many archaeological finds, the story of his discovery is one of knowledge gained in small increments. Through patient and detailed analysis over time, Ötzi has slowly yielded his secrets.


Ötzi the Iceman was discovered by two German hikers who were crossing the Tisenjoch Pᴀss at an elevation of 10,530 feet (3,210 meters) above the Ötztal Valley in western Austria in September 1991. The hikers were skirting a glacier on the border of Austria and Italy when they noticed the upper part of a human body protruding from the ice.


“The mummy was found lying outstretched on his stomach,” Hersel said. “The left arm was strongly angled to the right and lay under the chin.”

That summer had been particularly warm, Hersel said, and the high temperatures aided in exposing Ötzi’s remains. “There had been a warm Sahara wind that brought sand to the glacier in which Ötzi was stuck,” she said. “So it was not pure white but covered with red sand and melted even quicker.”


The German hikers alerted the Austrian authorities, who ᴀssumed the body was the victim of an unfortunate mountaineering accident.

This ᴀssumption prompted a hasty attempt the next day to extract the body from the ice. Using axes and jackhammers, the rescuers attempted to dig Ötzi out of the ice, despite the fact that none of them were trained archeologists. In the process, parts of the mummy — including the left hip and thigh and a few of his tools, including his bow — were damaged, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

The first attempt to free the body from the ice was thwarted by bad weather, so the authorities tried again the next day. The rescue effort took longer than anticipated, but five days after Ötzi’s discovery, the mummy was freed from the ice and fully exposed.

A helicopter carried the mummy off the mountain, and the iceman was transported to the Insтιтute of Forensic Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. There, Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist at the University of Innsbruck, examined the remains and announced that the mummy was not a mountaineer but was “at least 4,000 years old,” Scientific American reported.


The ice had preserved the body through a process of natural mummification. This process involves preserving organic tissue without the aid of human intervention, such as is the case with some ancient Egyptian mummification, or deliberately applied chemicals. In addition to extremely cold environments, natural mummification can occur in arid environments or places that are devoid of oxygen, such as bogs and swamps.

A subsequent radiocarbon analysis performed on Ötzi’s tissues found that he was even older than 4,000 years. Radiocarbon dating — which measures carbon 14, an isotope, or version of carbon — determined that the iceman was about 5,300 years old, dating to 3300 B.C. This meant that Ötzi lived during the era of history known as the Copper Age, the transition period between the Neolithic, or the “New Stone Age,” and the late Bronze Age.

The Copper Age (3500 B.C. to 1700 B.C.), also known as the Chalcolithic period, represents the time when the populations of what is now Europe began to make widespread use of metals while still using stone tools but had not yet smelted copper and tin to make bronze. It was also a time when the first complex social hierarchies developed and populations began to erect large, monumental structures made of stone — the famous megalithic tombs, standing stones and dolmens of Europe.

Once excavated, Ötzi was initially housed at the Insтιтute of Forensic Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. But when researchers learned that the mummy had been found on the Italian side of the Alps, 100 feet (30 m) from the Austrian border, the Italian government claimed the remains, Smithsonian Magazine(opens in new tab) reported. Austria agreed, and six years later, Ötzi was transferred to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. There, he is housed in a special “cold cell,” which is kept at a constant 20.3 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6.5 degrees Celsius) and can be viewed through a small window. His artifacts and clothing are also on display.

Ötzi has undergone extensive scientific analyses since his discovery which have helped us learn more about what Ötzi’s life was like and how he ԀiҽԀ, as well as the time in which he lived.


The initial analyses focused on the Iceman’s physical characteristics. Ötzi would have stood about 5 feet, 3 inches (1.60 m) tall and weighed around 110 pounds (50 kilograms), Live Science previously reported. From the low levels of subcutaneous fat on his body, researchers concluded that Ötzi had a lean, wiry build. An analysis of the osteons (microscopic structures in the bone that are frequently used to determine the age of a skeleton) in his femur indicated that he was in his 40s when he ԀiҽԀ.

“Ötzi was fit but not completely healthy,” said Hersel. Analyses demonstrated that he suffered from several ailments, including Lyme disease and intestinal parasites.

Microscopic analysis of his stomach found evidence of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach ulcers and gastritis, Live Science previously reported. He also has extensive wear on his teeth, and his joints — especially his hips, shoulder, knees and spine — showed signs of significant wear and tear, suggesting he suffered from arthritis.

Moreover, his lungs were coated with soot, indicating that he likely spent a lot of time around open fires during his life. He even had signs of tooth decay, gum disease and dental trauma, Live Science previously reported.

DNA analyses have also untangled Ötzi’s complex genome. The findings indicate that he is not related to the current populations of continental Europe but shares a genetic affinity with the inhabitants of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. A 2012 paper published in the journal Nature Communications also revealed that he probably had brown eyes, had type O blood and was lactose intolerant. His genetic predisposition shows an increased risk for coronary heart disease, which may have contributed to the development of calcifications (hardened plaques) around his carotid artery.

The circumstance of Ötzi’s Ԁҽαth is arguably the greatest mystery surrounding him. When he was first recovered from the ice, experts ᴀssumed Ötzi had ԀiҽԀ in a mountaineering accident. Researchers speculated on whether he ԀiҽԀ after falling into a crevᴀsse, succumbing to exposure to the elements or simply losing his footing on the treacherous ice and tumbling to his Ԁҽαth. However, in 2012, a detailed analysis of Ötzi’s body revealed that he was likely murdered.

Ötzi sustained two significant injuries — one to his shoulder and one to his head. The first injury consisted of a flint arrowhead embedded in his left shoulder, a detail that was picked up during an X-ray originally conducted in 2001. The second injury was a severe head wound, possibly from a blunt object. At first, researchers debated which injury might have caused his Ԁҽαth. But a 2012 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface revealed that the arrow was the main cause of Ԁҽαth.

“The arrowhead pierced through the left shoulder blade and injured an important artery, the subclavian artery, under the collarbone,” Hersel said.

It’s possible that Ötzi bled to Ԁҽαth within a matter of minutes, Hersel said. Moreover, the study found that his red blood cells, surprisingly intact after 5,000 years, showed traces of a clotting protein that quickly appears in human blood immediately after a wound but disappears soon after, suggesting that Ötzi didn’t survive the wound.

Researchers now think that Ötzi was likely ambushed and that the arrow — sH๏τ by an unknown ᴀssailant — struck his back and ᛕᎥᒪᒪed him. It’s possible that he suffered the head wound at the same time as the arrow wound or afterward. Why he was ᛕᎥᒪᒪed, however, remains a mystery.

Ötzi continues to fascinate the world three decades after his discovery. The mummy offers a glimpse into the life and times of a man who lived over 5,000 years ago, in a world far removed from our modern era of digital communications, space travel and advanced technologies of all kinds.

Yet the clothing he wore and the tools he carried suggest he was acutely adapted to his environment and was well-versed in the plants, animals and technologies of his era. Future studies using new and innovative technologies will continue to reveal even more about Ötzi’s life and times.

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