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How Otzi the Iceman outfitted himself: Fur from brown bears and leather from roe deer

What does the 5,300-year-old man wear?

Brown bear hats, goat leather leggings, roe deer quivers and striped jackets made from an assortment of sheep hides, according to a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports. 

The new work presents the most detailed analysis yet of the many garments of Ötzi the Iceman, who was 45 years old when he died of an arrow wound in the Italian Alps more than 5,000 years ago.

Ötzi got his nickname because he was discovered in the Ötztal Alps. He is the oldest known human mummy in Europe, and the amazing preservation of his body, as well as his belongings, has given archaeologists a rare window into an ancient way of life. 

Scientists believe that shortly after the Iceman’s death his body was quickly buried in snow, protecting it from being ransacked by predators and keeping it from decomposing. He remained frozen in time for thousands of years until 1991, when he was discovered by a pair of German tourists, his body face down, emerging from the melting ice. 

“The Iceman’s preservation was a fluke,” said Niall O’Sullivan, a researcher at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) in Bolzano, Italy. “It required a very specific set of circumstances to preserve him.” 

Over the last 25 years, a wide range of studies have revealed all kinds of interesting details about Ötzi and his life.

DNA analysis suggests that he was lactose intolerant and predisposed to cardiovascular disease.

An examination of his intestinal contents showed he enjoyed a meal of red deer and bread shortly before he died. The type of pollen in his stomach indicated that he ate that last meal in the summer. 

At the time of his death, he was dressed in a coat, hat, loincloth, leggings, a quiver, a belt and shoes. Previous studies have looked at how these clothes were constructed and provided some vague insights on what materials were used to make them. But the authors of the new paper wanted to know more.

“Preserved leathers provide rare and valuable information into how ancient populations utilized the secondary products of animal husbandry,” they wrote in the paper. 

They added that in order to maximize the amount of information that can be gleaned from these ancient garments, a more complete characterization of the clothes was necessary.

It was a daunting task. The tanning processes used 5,300 years ago may have included scraping, exposure to fatty acids, and possibly intense heating. The leathers had been stripped of their grain pattern and other obvious markers of their origins.

To determine what species the Iceman and his contemporaries used to make their clothes, the authors used a new genetic sequencing approach that allowed them to reconstruct the mitochondrial DNA of most of the animal species that were used in the making of the clothes. Using this approach, they were able to identify all of the samples they tested.

Their research revealed that Ötzi’s wardrobe came from five different animals. His shoelace was made of cow leather, his loincloth was made of sheepskin, and his leggings were made of goat leather.

Both his hat and quiver were made from the hides of wild animals. The hat was bearskin, with the furry part worn on the outside. The quiver was made of red roe deer.

The Iceman’s coat was the most complex piece of clothing, comprising at least four hides of two species — goat and sheep.

The authors point out that a pair of 4,500-year-old leggings from Switzerland were also made of goat as well. Perhaps Copper Age individuals preferred goatskin on their legs — possibly because it was more flexible. 

Albert Zinc, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman and the senior author on the paper, said the work shows that both functionality and comfort were taken into consideration in the construction of clothes during the Copper Age. 

Scientists have been studying Ötzi for 25 years now, but it seems that the mummy and his belongings still have more to teach us.

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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