How the Iceman Otzi likely died

BOLZANO (Italy) • When the head of a small Italian museum called detective inspector Alexander Horn of the Munich Police, she asked him if he investigated cold cases. "Yes I do," he said, recalling their conversation.

"Well, I have the coldest case of all for you," said Ms Angelika Fleckinger, director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy. The unknown victim, nicknamed Otzi, has literally been in cold storage in her museum for a quarter-century.

Often called the Iceman, he is the world's most perfectly preserved mummy, a Copper Age fellow who had been frozen inside a glacier along the northern Italian border with Austria until warming global temperatures melted the ice and two hikers discovered him in 1991.

The cause of death remained uncertain until 10 years later, when an X-ray of the mummy pointed to foul play in the form of a flint arrowhead embedded in his back, just under his shoulder.

But now, armed with a wealth of new scientific information that researchers have compiled, Mr Horn has managed to piece together a remarkably detailed picture of what befell the Iceman on that fateful day around 3,300BC, near the crest of the Otztal Alps.

Mr Horn, a noted profiler, said: "He's in a better condition than recent homicide victims I've worked on who have been found out in the open." There are a few mummies in the world as old as Otzi, but none so well preserved.

The glacier not only froze Otzi where he had died, but the high humidity of the ice also kept his organs and skin largely intact.

The more scientists learn, the more recognisable the Iceman becomes. He was 1.65m tall (the average height for his time), weighed about 50kg and had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair. He was about 45- respectably old for the late Neolithic age, but still in his prime.

Every modern murder investigation relies heavily on forensic science, but in Otzi's case, the techniques have been particularly high- tech, involving exotic specialities such as archaeobotany and paleometallurgy.

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Otzi's death at some time in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 1,980m, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 3,200m up.

On his body was one prominent wound, other than the one from the arrowhead: a deep cut in his right hand between the thumb and forefinger. By the degree of healing seen on the wound, it was one to two days old.

From this, Inspector Horn surmises that Otzi may have come down to his village and become embroiled in a violent altercation.

"It was a very active defensive wound and interesting in the context that no other injuries are found on the body, no major bruises or stab wounds, so probably he was the winner of that fight, even possibly killed the person who tried to attack him," he said.

Then he left, fully provisioned with food, the embers of a fire preserved in maple leaf wrappings inside a birch-bark cylinder, and quite a lot of other equipment.

For weapons, he had only a flint dagger so small it seemed to be the Copper Age equivalent of a derringer, a 1.8m-long stave for a bow that had not yet been completed, and a beautifully crafted deerskin quiver with a dozen arrows.

Mr Horn reckons Otzi was in no hurry. At 3,200m, he made what appeared to be a camp in a protected gully on the mountain saddle, spreading his belongings around and sitting down to his last meal.

"Roughly half an hour before his death, he was having a proper meal," Mr Horn said. The Copper Age menu was well balanced, consisting of ibex meat; einkorn wheat, likely bread; some sort of fat, might have been bacon or cheese; and bracken, a common fern.

Half an hour after Otzi dined, the killer shot him in the back from a distance of almost 30m. The arrow went under his left armpit and ripped through a roughly 1.3cm section of his subclavian artery, a wound that would have been quickly fatal.

Robbery can be ruled out, Mr Horn added. Otzi had a valuable copper axe. Clearly, the killer was trying to cover up his act. "You go back to your village with this unusual axe, it would be pretty obvious what had happened."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'How the Iceman Otzi likely died'. Print Edition | Subscribe