5,300-Year-Old Mummy Yields Further Secrets

Since the body of a middle-aged man was found in 1991 by a party of hikers in the Italian Alps, the corpse has been the centre of intensive research.  The body was that of a person who had lived some 5,300 years ago, at first the body, which had been beautifully preserved in its icy surroundings, was thought to be that of a climber who had got into difficulties and perished on the mountain, but close examination revealed that this was the corpse of a person who had lived in the New Stone Age.

Italian scientists have published a more complete study of the genome of this Stone Age person, someone who may have been murdered as the body was discovered with an arrow head buried in the shoulder.  This new research, building upon an earlier study into the corpses’s genetic material published in 2008 reveals that “Oetzi” had brown eyes, “O” type blood, was very probably lactose intolerant and was predisposed to heart disease.  The report has been published in the scientific journal “Nature Communications”.

The Mummified Body of “Oetzi”

The Iceman Cometh!

Picture Credit: BBC News

The findings have been published by the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bolzano (EURAC), in conjunction with Tuebingen and Saarland universities in Germany, which were also involved in this study.

Albert Zink, an anthropologist,  at the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, based in Bolzano, Italy, stated that this new study adds to the database of knowledge on this Neolithic individual.  For example, earlier studies had suggested that “Oetzi” had no living relatives, but the fuller genetic picture as laid out in the nuclei of Oetzi’s cells suggest  a different story.

Based on an analysis of nuclear DNA, this Stone Age person probably was descended from people of the Middle East who migrated out of that part of the world into Europe with the advent of more advanced agricultural systems.  Study of a series of anomalies in the “Iceman’s” DNA reveal him to be more closely related to modern inhabitants of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica than to modern human populations living in the Alps today.

The genome analysis involving the study of cells taken from inside the hip joint  also show him to be the first documented case of infection by a Lyme disease bacterium.  Lyme disease is one of the most common bacterial infections found in the Northern hemisphere, it is spread by tick bites and causes headaches, fatigue and in more extreme cases problems with joints and the nervous system.  It can be effectively treated by antibiotics, but for “Oetzi” there would have been no relief.

Interestingly, the “Tyrol Iceman”, as “Oetzi” is sometimes called, weighed about fifty kilogrammes when he died.  He was not overweight and had a very different diet to us today, but he was still predisposed to cardiovascular disease.  This may have implications for how scientists treat obesity in modern human populations.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Zink said:

“We’ve been studying the Iceman for 20 years.  We know so many things about him – where he lived, how he died – but very little was known about his genetics, the genetic information he was carrying around.”

The lactose intolerance, identified through this “whole genome sequencing process”, used in the study was probably very common in the New Stone Age.  Cows and other milk producing creatures were only just beginning to be domesticated on any large scale and much of the human population was very probably lactose intolerant.  Our ability to digest milk from other animals probably built up in the population over many thousands of years as humanity moved towards an agrarian society.

A Reconstruction of the New Stone Age Man – “Oetzi”

Reconstruction of the New Stone Age Man

Picture Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC 

Professor Zink added:

“This was really exciting and I think it’s just the start for a longer study on this level.  We still would like to learn more from this data – we’ve only just started to analyse it.”

Certainly, the discovery of a beautifully preserved specimen of a New Stone Age person, was one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century.  Advances in genetics are permitting scientists in the 21st Century to gain a further insight into the life of this ancient human being, who perished on a Tyrol mountainside more than 5,300 years ago.

An interesting paper was published on “Oetzi” in 2010, it suggested that this person may have been a Stone Age VIP and as a result given a much more formal burial.

To read this article: “Oetzi” – The Chieftan

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