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Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi the Iceman (also spelled Oetzi) (pronounced [ˈøːtsiː], ur'-tsee), Frozen Fritz, and Similaun Man are modern nicknames of a well-preserved natural mummy of a man from about 3300 BC, found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. The nickname comes from Ötztal, the region in which he was discovered. He is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and has offered an unprecedented view of Chalcolithic (Copper Age) Europeans.

Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi - The Iceman


Ötzi the Iceman while still frozen in the glacier, photographed by Helmut Simon upon the discovery of the body in September 1991.
Ötzi the Iceman while still frozen in the glacier, photographed by Helmut Simon upon the discovery of the body in September 1991.
Another early photograph of the body prior to its removal from the ice.
Another early photograph of the body prior to its removal from the ice.

Ötzi was found by two German tourists from Nuremberg, Helmut and Erika Simon, on September 19, 1991. The body was at first thought to be a modern corpse, like several others which had been recently found in the region. Lying on its front and frozen in ice below the torso, it was crudely removed from the glacier by the Austrian authorities using a small jackhammer (which punctured the hip of the body) and ice-axes using non-archaeological methods. In addition, before the body was removed from the ice, people were allowed to see it, and some took portions of clothes and tools as souvenirs. The body was then taken to a morgue in Innsbruck, where its true age was subsequently ascertained. However, during a press conference that was held, people were allowed to take photographs and touch the body. As a result of this, fungus began to grow on the Iceman's skin.

Subsequent surveys in October 1991 showed that the body had been located 92.56 meters inside Italian territory ( 46°46′44″N, 10°50′23″E). Since 1998 it has been on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

 Disputes over the discovery

In 2003, the Simons asked a court in Bolzano, Italy, to recognize their role in Ötzi's discovery and declare them his "official discoverers". Under Italian law, winning the lawsuit would entitle them to a finders' fee of 25% of the value of the discovered item from the authorities. In November 2003, the court declared the Simons the official finders of Ötzi, and at the end of December 2003, the Simons announced that they were seeking US$300,000 as their finders' fee.

Provincial government officials decided to appeal. By this time, Helmut Simon had died in 2004. In June 2006, the appeals court affirmed that the Simons had indeed discovered the Iceman and were therefore entitled to a finder's fee. It also ruled that the provincial government had to pay the Simons' legal fees. After this ruling, Mrs. Erika Simon reduced her claim to €150,000. The provincial government's response was that the high expenses it had incurred to establish a museum and the costs of preserving the Iceman should be considered when determining the finder's fee. It insisted it would pay no more than €50,000. In September 2006, the authorities appealed the case to Italy's highest court, the Court of Cassation.

Since the discovery of Ötzi in 1991 and the Simons' lawsuit, two other people have come forward to claim that they were part of the same mountaineering party that came across Ötzi and that they discovered the body first. They are:

  • Magdalena Mohar Jarc, a Slovenian actress, who has alleged that she discovered the corpse first, and shortly after returning to an alpine house asked Helmut Simon to take photographs of Ötzi. Mountaineer and explorer Reinhold Messner is apparently appearing as a witness for her.
  • Sandra Nemeth, from Switzerland, who has contended that she found the corpse before Helmut and Erika Simon, and that she spat on Ötzi to make sure that her DNA would be found on the body later. She has asked for a DNA test on the remains but experts believe that there is little chance of finding any trace.

The rival claims are now being heard by a court in Bolzano, Italy. The legal case has angered Mrs. Simon, who alleges that neither woman was present on the mountain that day. In 2005, Mrs. Simon's lawyer said: "Mrs. Simon is very upset by all this and by the fact that these two new claimants have decided to appear 14 years after Ötzi was found."

 Scientific analyses of Ötzi

The body has been extensively examined, measured, X-rayed, and dated. Tissues and intestinal contents were examined microscopically, as were the items he was found with.

 The body

Ötzi the Iceman, now housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
Ötzi the Iceman, now housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

At the time of his death, by current estimates Ötzi was approximately 165 cm (5 ft. 5 in.) tall, weighed about 38 kg (84 lbs., or 6 st.), and was about 45.7 years of age. Because the body was covered in ice shortly after his death it only partially deteriorated. Analysis of pollen and dust grains and the isotopic composition of his tooth enamel indicate that he spent his childhood near the present village of Feldthurns (Velturno), north of Bolzano, but later went to live in valleys about 50 km further north. Analysis by Franco Rollo's group at the University of Camerino has shown that Otzi's mitochondrial DNA belongs to the K1 subcluster of the mitochondrial haplogroup K, but that it cannot be categorized into any of the three modern branches of that subcluster.

Analysis of Ötzi's intestinal contents showed two meals (the last one about eight hours before his death), one of chamois meat, the other of red deer meat. Both were eaten with some grain as well as some roots and fruits. The grain from both meals was a highly processed einkorn wheat bran, quite possibly eaten in the form of bread. There were also a few kernels of sloes (small plum-like fruits of the blackthorn tree). Other processes were used to examine his diet. Hair takes months to grow, and by studying trace elements in it a picture of his changing diet is able to be identified.

Pollen in the first meal showed that it had been consumed in a mid-altitude conifer forest, and other pollens indicated the presence of wheat and legumes, which may have been domesticated crops. Also, pollen grains of hop-hornbeam were discovered. The pollen was very well preserved with even the cells inside still intact, indicating that it had been fresh (a few hours old) at the time of Ötzi's death. This find places the event in the spring. Interestingly, einkorn wheat is harvested in the late summer, and sloes in the autumn; these must have been stored since the year before.

High levels of both copper particles and arsenic were found in Ötzi's hair. This, along with Ötzi's copper axe which is 99.7% pure copper, has led scientists to speculate that Ötzi was involved in copper smelting.

By examining the proportions of Ötzi's tibia, femur and pelvis, Christopher Ruff has determined that Ötzi's lifestyle included long walks over hilly terrain. This degree of mobility is not characteristic of other Copper Age Europeans. Ruff proposes that this may indicate Ötzi was a high-altitude shepherd.


He apparently had whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), an intestinal parasite. During CT scans, it was observed that three or four of his right ribs had been squashed when he had been lying face down after death.


He had approximately 57 carbon tattoos consisting of simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left knee, and on his right ankle. Using X-rays, it was determined that the Iceman may have had arthritis in these joints. Some scientists suggest that the designs might have been used to mark the passage from youth to manhood, or it has been speculated that they may be related to acupuncture.

 Clothes and shoes

Ötzi with some of the equipment found with him.
Ötzi with some of the equipment found with him.
Ötzi's flint knife and its sheath.
Ötzi's flint knife and its sheath.

Ötzi's clothes were quite sophisticated. He wore a cloak made of woven grass and a vest, a belt, a pair of leggings, a loincloth and shoes, all made of leather. He also wore a bearskin cap with a leather chin strap. The shoes were waterproof and wide, seemingly designed for walking across the snow; they were constructed using bearskin for the soles, deer hide for top panels, and a netting made of tree bark. Soft grass went around the foot and in the shoe and functioned like warm socks. The vest, belt, leggings, and loincloth were constructed of vertical strips of leather sewn together with sinew. His belt had a pouch sewn to it that contained a cache of useful items: a scraper, drill, flint flake, bone awl, and a dried fungus to be used as tinder.

The shoes have since been reproduced by experts and found to constitute such excellent footwear that there are plans for commercial production. However, a more recent theory by British archaeologist Jacqui Wood says that Ötzi's "shoes" were actually the upper part of snowshoes. According to this theory, the item currently interpreted as part of a backpack is actually the wood frame and netting of one snowshoe and animal hide to cover the torso.

 Other equipment

Other items found with the Iceman were a copper axe with a yew handle, a flint knife with an ash handle, a quiver of 14 bone-tipped arrows with viburnum and dogwood shafts and flint heads (two arrows were finished, twelve were not), and an unfinished yew longbow that was 3 feet 2 inches (one metre) tall. Also found were berries, two birch bark baskets.

Among Ötzi's possessions were two species of polypore mushrooms with leather strings through them. One of these (the birch fungus) is known to have antibacterial properties, and was likely used for medicinal purposes. The other was a type of tinder fungus, included with part of what appeared to be a complex firestarting kit. The kit featured pieces of over a dozen different plants, in addition to flint and pyrite for creating sparks.

 Cause of death

A CT scan revealed that Ötzi had what appeared to be an arrowhead lodged in one shoulder when he died, matching a small tear on his coat. The arrow shaft had been removed, apparently by a companion. He had a deep wound on the base of his thumb that cut down to the bone. An absence of scar tissue indicates that the injury occurred shortly before his death. He also had bruises and cuts on his hands, wrists, and chest.DNA analysis revealed traces of blood from four other people on his gear: one from his knife, two from the same arrowhead, and a fourth from his coat.

This may indicate that Ötzi was actually part of an armed raiding party, and had gotten into a skirmish, probably with a neighbouring tribe, and this skirmish had gone badly for the attackers.

The Ötzi memorial on the Similaun mountain, where Ötzi the Iceman was found, in the Ötztal Alps.
The Ötzi memorial on the Similaun mountain, where Ötzi the Iceman was found, in the Ötztal Alps.

The biological evidence suggests that he was out of his home territory. The DNA evidence suggests that he was assisted by companions who were also wounded. The repairs he had made to his clothing are very crude compared to the original stitching. The copper axe could not have been made by him alone. It would have required a concerted group tribal effort to mine, smelt and cast the copper axe head. This all shows foresight, planning and preparation on a large scale with a certain goal in mind.

He was wounded in the conflict, and (according to CT scan findings) probably died within several minutes due to massive blood loss, as a result of a flint arrowhead severing his left subclavian artery.

By looking at pollen in his gut and comparing it to modern samples it is possible to tell that he died in the springtime.

 Ritual sacrifice

Before the latest evidence, it was speculated that Ötzi had been a victim of a ritual sacrifice, perhaps for being a chieftain. This explanation may have been inspired by theories previously advanced for the first millennium B.C. bodies recovered from peat bogs, such as the Tollund Man and the Lindow Man.


It has also been hypothesized that Ötzi was the victim of a storm caused by the Priora oscillation, a sudden cooling of the Earth's environment, as indicated by the surge of the nearby Priora Glacier.

 Latest data

The Guardian newspaper  reports "Frank Ruehli, of the University of Zurich, worked with scientists from Bolzano, [...] to construct a three-dimensional image of Otzi using high-resolution computer tomography", which would have been trickier just a few years before.

"Dr Ruehli found that an arrow had torn a hole in an artery beneath Otzi's left collarbone," an injury that would probably have killed him even with today's medicine. The blood loss led to a cardiac arrest. These findings were published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The iceman's mitochondrial DNA has been analyzed by Franco Rollo and his colleagues, and it was discovered that he had genetic markers associated with reduced fertility, which may conceivably have affected his social acceptance.

 "Ötzi's Curse"

Influenced by the "Curse of the Pharaohs" and the media theme of cursed mummies, claims have been made that Ötzi is cursed. The allegation centers around the deaths of several people connected to the discovery, recovery and subsequent examination of Ötzi. It is alleged that they have died under mysterious circumstances. These persons include co-discoverer Helmut Simon; and Konrad Spindler, the first examiner of the mummy in Austria at a local morgue in 1991. To date, the deaths of seven people, of which four were the result of some violence in the form of accidents, have been attributed to the alleged curse. However, hundreds of people were involved in the recovery of Ötzi and are still involved in studying the body and the artifacts found with it; thus it may not be surprising that a few of them have died since the mummy's discovery.

The Museum

The collection on exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is structured chronologically and documents the entire history of South Tyrol from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Age (15,000 BC) to the Carolingian period (around 800 AD).
Set off against the wider historical background, the Iceman along with the associated finds form the exhibit's core.
Models, reconstructions, stereoscopic pictures, videos and interactive multimedia stations allow the visitor to gain insight into the ancient past of the southern Alpine region in a way that is, at the same time, highly informative and entertaining. .


Opening hours:

Tuesday to Sunday: entry 10 am - 5.30 pm
Closed on Mondays
Open on holidays
In July, August and December open daily (also on Mondays)
On the 24th and 31st December the Museum will be closed at 3 p.m., last entry at 2 p.m.
Closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December