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Scientists reconstruct life of ‘Iceman’

Researchers say the mysterious 5,200-year-old hunter didn’t stray far from his Alpine home.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The mysterious 5,200-year-old iceman found in an Alpine glacier was born in a valley in what is now northern Italy and didn’t travel far from home, an international team of researchers has concluded.

Indeed, the iceman, known as Ötzi, probably spent his whole life within about 37 miles of the spot near the Italy-Austria border where he was found frozen, according to the team led by Wolfgang Mueller of the Australian National University in Canberra.

Their findings are being reported Friday in the journal Science.

A group of hikers discovered Ötzi’s well-preserved body in 1991; since then, he and his clothing and tools have opened a window on the previously little known world of copper-age Europe. Ötzi is currently housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

Teeth, bones, guts studied
Mueller’s team, which also includes researchers from the United States and Switzerland, studied the forms of different elements in Ötzi’s teeth, bones and intestines and compared them with the types found in water and soil in the region.

Elements such as oxygen and argon are found in different forms, called isotopes, and by comparing the ratio of one isotope to another in body tissue scientists can determine the source of the food or water the person has been consuming. The researchers also looked at the isotopes of strontium and lead in Ötzi.

The findings for tooth enamel can show what a person had been eating and drinking as a child, while bone provides a similar measure for adults. In addition, the intestines give an indication of activities during a person’s final days.

Water in the area where Ötzi was found varies in oxygen isotope ratio because rainfall to the north comes from the cooler and more distant Atlantic Ocean, while that to the south comes from the warmer and closer Mediterranean.

Analysis of Ötzi’s tooth enamel indicates that between the ages of 3 and 5 he was drinking water with isotope ratios found only to the south of where he was found frozen.

However, bone analysis of the isotope level ingested as an adult shows a contribution from both northern and southern water sources, something the researchers said could indicate migration into one or more of several nearby valleys.

The isotope ratios for strontium and lead vary depending on the types of rock and soil in an area. The scientists also analyzed the argon ratio of bits of mica found in the intestine, believed to have been ingested as a result of eating stone-ground grain.

Narrowing down his address
Using this data, the team was able to rule out the region south of Bolzano as home to Ötzi, saying instead that he more likely resided in the Schnals or Etsch/Adige valley near Merano or the nearby Ulten, middle Eisack or lower Puster valleys, between Bolzano and the Austrian border.

“Our data indicate that the Iceman spent his entire life in the area south of the discovery site” near the border between Italy and Austria, the team concluded.

They noted that one location, Feldthurns, near Bressanone in the Eisack valley, gives the closest match between local soils and Ötzi’s tooth enamel.

Earlier studies have indicated that Ötzi was between 25 and 40 when he died, suffered from arthritis and had an arrowhead embedded in a shoulder, probably the cause of death.