Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Otzi the Iceman

One day about 5,300 years ago a man left a small village in the Italian Alps. He might have been selling flint to other Neolithic settlements on the northern side of the mountains, in what is Austria today. However, his journey took a tragic turn when he got caught in a nasty snow drift and died. In 1991 a couple of hikers came across the body sticking out of a melting glacier and called for help. A group of archaeologists took the body back to the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and "Otzi" became an instant celebrity.

After some intensive studies and examination of the Iceman and his belongings, archaeologists have learned a great deal about the Chalcolithic period of European history. Just try busting that word out at a party: Chalcolithic! It's just a smart word to describe the period of time when people were using both stone and copper tools. That's why it is also known as the Copper Age.

The most interesting thing about the Iceman is that he had wonderfully preserved examples of Copper Age tools and equipment with him like a bow and quiver full of arrows, a copper-headed axe, boots and a waterproof cape made of grass, and several kinds of food. In fact, by examining his stomach and intestines, scientists were able to find out that his last couple of meals consisted of meat from a red deer, some fruit, nuts, and grain grown locally in the region of Italy today called Sudtirol.

From his bones and hair, the scientists studying Iceman also learned much about his life. First, he seemed to be about 45 years old and used to climbing and living in the mountainous environment of the Alps. His joints showed the wear and tear of someone living in a pretty high and rugged place. He even had a spot of frostbite on his pinky toe. Iceman's hair showed a large amount of both copper particles and arsenic, a poisonous substance. In making copper tools, Iceman would have ground up a green rock called Malachite, then heated it to 1,100 degrees Celsius to smelt out the copper inside of it. Arsenic comes from the smoke of a copper-smelting operation, and Iceman seems to have been around quite a lot.

Interestingly, the Iceman also had 57 tattoos on various parts of his body. Besides being a decoration, these tattoos were used by prehistoric people to heal sickness and relieve pain.

Further study has shown signs of a more violent death for the Iceman than just dying in a snow drift. There have been findings of stab wounds from an arrow on Otzi's shoulder, a cut on his thumb, and even other people's blood on a couple of his weapons. Lately, there has been evidence that he also suffered a nasty whack on the head. He may have been fighting for his life when he died.


If you're interested in learning more about the Iceman, check some photo scans here.

Or, if you want to take a trip to Italy and see the Iceman up close and in person--check out the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Or check out a full length movie about the Iceman's life and times here

Here are your questions to think about:

1.       What the heck was he doing in the Alps?
2.       How did he die? Was it a violent death?
3.       What was his daily life like?
4.       What did he eat?
5.       What were his tools made of?
6.       What were some dangers he faced?
7.       Why do scientists have different theories about how he died?

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