A Medical Look at the Iceman Ötzi
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A few months back we did an episode on the ice mummy, Ötzi. If you recall, German hikers discovered his body in the Eastern Alps in 1991. Since then, scientists have studied his body, and new tests are telling us more about the Neolithic man. Though Ötzi died 5300 years ago, his body was so well preserved, scientists were recently able to extract uncontaminated DNA and sequence his genome.

They found that when he died at 46 years old, Ötzi was predisposed to cardiovascular disease. He also had brown eyes, blood type O, lactose intolerance, and it turns out he had Lyme disease, making him the world’s first documented case.  Tissue from his hip bone revealed the bacterial pathogen that causes Lyme disease.

Artist's rendering of Ötzi
Reconstruction of what Ötzi may have looked like
Photo © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Today, it’s among the most rapidly emerging infectious diseases in North America. A bite from an infected tick can cause a bull’s eye rash around the bite site, along with aches and pains. The symptoms disappear but then can return with more severe problems such as paralysis, heart palpitations, and even memory loss and confusion.  Today, the infection is treated with antibiotics and rarely progresses. But in Ötzi’s time, this infection would have worsened, and eventually disabled or killed him.  But the iceman did not die from Lyme disease.

Ötzi may have been killed by an arrow causing him to bleed out within minutes.  He also had signs of defensive wounds to his hands and arms. Recent analysis revealed a skull fracture caused bleeding in the back of the brain further suggesting he was attacked or fell. This adds to mounting evidence he died from a fight.

Anyone can visit Ötzi at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Italy.  A small window shows his refrigerated body, and you can walk up to a new 3-D life-sized model of how he would have appeared.


For more information…

Initial Genetic Analysis Reveals Iceman Ötzi Predisposed to Cardiovascular Disease
ScienceDaily — In a paper appearing in Nature Communications, researchers report new findings about physiognomy, ethnic origin and predisposition towards illness of the world's oldest glacier mummy.

Frozen mummy's genetic blueprints unveiled
ScienceNews — Studies of Ötzi's frozen remains have revealed a trove of information about his life and death 5,300 years ago, including a re-creation of what he looked like, left.

New insights into the Tyrolean Iceman's origin and phenotype as inferred by whole-genome sequencing
Original Nature Communications paper about recent discoveries learned from Ötzi's genome.

Ötzi the Iceman and the Sardinians
From this Discovery Magazine article: "Ötzi seems to resemble most closely the people of Sardinia. [...] It is interesting that Sardinians have remained moored to their genetic past, enough so that a 5,300 year old individual clearly can exhibit affinities with them."