Tests Show the Iceman Stayeth

Times Staff Writer

The 5,200-year-old iceman, whose body was discovered in 1991 frozen in the Italian Alps, was apparently a homebody who lived his entire life within some 37 miles of the place where he died.

The well-preserved body of the ancient hunter, named Otzi after the valley where he was found, has proved a rich source of insight into central European life during the Copper Age.

The latest key to Otzi’s history was written on his teeth and bones, according to a report in this week’s issue of the journal Science.

Researchers from Australia, Switzerland and the United States analyzed oxygen, strontium and other elements in the mummy’s tissues and compared them with samples of the same elements found in nearby water and soil samples.

The atomic character of such elements varies widely in the region, partly because the source of rainstorms varies -- the Atlantic Ocean for the high mountains where the body was found and the Mediterranean Sea for valleys to the south.


By measuring the elements in Otzi’s dental enamel, researchers concluded that the source of the food and water Otzi ingested as a young child was a region just south of the place of his demise.

Bone is replaced every 10 to 20 years, so its elemental composition indicates where the man spent adulthood -- higher-altitude areas 37 miles north. The hunter was about 46 years old when he was killed by an arrow to his shoulder.

Wolfgang Muller, an earth scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra and coauthor of the study, said the same technique could be used to determine if the iceman regularly migrated within the area.

But Otzi’s remains guard other mysteries that may never be solved.

“What was the iceman doing up there? Was he a regular visitor of the high mountain areas,” perhaps to hunt or graze sheep, Muller said, “or was he fleeing his enemies?”