No next-of-kin was around to claim the frozen 5,300-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman when it was found in the Italian Alps in 1991, but researchers now report that there are at least 19 genetic relatives of Ötzi living in Austria's Tyrol region.
"These men and the 'Iceman' had the same ancestors," Walther Parson, a researcher at the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, told the Austrian Press Agency last week.
The relatives may not know they're related, however. The Austrian researchers haven't told them.
They found the 19 genetic matches by looking through the DNA records of 3,700 Austrian blood donors for a rare Y-chromosome mutation known as G-L91. The mutation is a reliable marker for ancestral relationships, because it tends to be passed down intact from one generation to the next. But because it's on the Y sex chromosome, the marker can be used only to trace male ancestry.
Parson and his colleagues are using genetic markers to get a better sense of how different populations spread throughout the Alpine regions. So far, their research suggest that migration patterns favored Austria's Pillersattel pass over the Landeck district in prehistoric times, Parson told APA.
The 19 Austrian men in Parson's study are almost certainly not the only ones who share ancestry with Ötzi. The APA said scientists expect to find relatives in nearby regions of the Swiss and Italian Alps as well.
When it comes to frozen mummies, Ötzi is a world-famous celebrity. (Juanita the Peruvian Ice Maiden ranks up there as well.) Researchers have already deduced that Ötzi came from farming stock, and that he suffered from heart disease, joint pain, tooth decay, lactose intolerance and possibly Lyme disease.
None of those maladies killed him. Instead, scientists suggest he was shot with an arrow as he walked along an Alpine trail. He apparently experienced a blow to the head, injured his eye as he fell, and bled to death on the trail. Or did he die somewhere else, and get a ceremonial burial in the mountains? All these clues make Ötzi's death one of the scientific world's most intensely investigated "cold cases." Now if they can just find DNA samples from his killers ...
More about Ötzi:
- Iceman looks tired, but he's 5,300 years old
- Mummy holds world's oldest blood cells
- He didn't have many relatives on his mom's side
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.