A sharp incision in his right eye may have contributed to the rapid demise of Ötzi the Iceman, the famous mummy who died in the Italian Alps more than 5,000 years ago.
Twenty years after two hikers stumbled upon the Iceman in a melting glacier, new analyses have revealed that a deep cut likely led to heavy bleeding in the man's eye. In the cold, high-altitude conditions where he was found, that kind of injury would have been tough to recover from.
The official opinion remains that an arrow in his left shoulder was the cause of death for Ötzi. But the new study raises the possibility — for some, at least — that he fell over after being shot by an arrow. And, at higher than 10,000 feet in elevation, his alpine fall may have made the situation much worse.
"Maybe he fell down or maybe he had a fight up there, nobody knows," said Wolfgang Recheis, a physicist in the radiology department at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "With this cut alone, at 3,250 meters, it would have been a deadly wound up there. Bleeding to death in the late afternoon when it was getting cold up there, this could be really dangerous."
Ever since his discovery in 1991, Ötzi has been measured, photographed, X-rayed, CT-scanned and endlessly speculated about. The Iceman Photoscan website allows anyone to scrutinize every inch of the body, which belonged to a 5-foot-3-inch, 110-pound, 45-year old man.
Ten years ago, researchers found a flint arrowhead buried in Ötzi's left shoulder blade inside a 0.8-inch-wide hole. They concluded that the arrow pierced a major artery and killed him within minutes. At a conference in September, experts reaffirmed that assessment.
But in one of the latest studies, Recheis used the most advanced CT-scanning technology available to take a closer look at Ötzi's right eye. Earlier examinations had shown a crack in the skull in that spot. The new work revealed a deep incision in the same place.
Scans also revealed iron crystals around the right eye and forehead, which produce a bluish hue. And since the region's rocks are naturally low in iron, Recheis and colleagues suspect the iron is a sign of a hematoma, or massive bleeding outside of the blood vessels. A biopsy is needed for confirmation.
Despite the officially stated opinion on Ötzi's cause of death, Recheis is not convinced that the arrow wound was deadly on its own.
"My South Tyrolean colleagues say the arrow most probably hit the sub-clavicular artery or other vital vessel and thus the Iceman died," Recheis said. "But there are doubts. It's justified that the arrow did not hit any vital vessels or nerves as far as we can say from the data we have."
"This could be the first thing," he added. "He was up there and shot by an arrow. And then he fell down, cut his eye and bled to death."
Albert Zink, head of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, was surprised and perplexed to hear of these new claims. At a conference this fall, he said, a whole table-full of experts discussed the evidence and unanimously agreed that the arrow killed the Iceman.
The shoulder wound, he said, was clearly fresh and bleeding heavily when Ötzi died.
"It is impossible that he walked around or that this was an old injury because this was a very severe injury," Zink said. "If you don't have the possibility to do surgery, you cannot survive from this for longer than 10 or 15 minutes."
The eye injury could have happened from a fall after Ötzi was shot or from a blow to the head by his attacker. But whatever the cause, Zink is sure that it was secondary to the arrow strike.
"It's true that there might be new evidence that there was a little crack in the skin, so maybe he was bleeding from skull trauma," he added. "But it doesn't change anything in the end."
According to some news reports, the new findings could support a theory that Ötzi was the victim of a mountaineering accident. Both Recheis and Zink agreed that this was unlikely. Based on his muscle strength and patterns of joint degeneration, the Iceman was a fit and experienced climber. And he was near an easy path when he died.