Studying remains of ancient Iceman, scientists get a look at what he ate

Less than two hours before he hiked his last steps in the Tyrolean Alps, Otzi the Iceman fueled up on ibex meat. That was the conclusion of a talk recently at the Seventh World Congress on Mummy Studies, during which researchers — armed with Otzi’s newly sequenced genome and a detailed dental analysis — also agreed that the Iceman had brown eyes and probably wasn’t much of a tooth brusher.

The Iceman, whose remains were discovered in 1991 about 5,200 years after he died, probably after being attacked, has been a gold mine of information about Neolithic life, as researchers have extensively studied his gear — copper ax, hide and leather clothing, and accessories — and his body. Previous research on his meals focused on fecal material removed from his bowels. The contents showed that he dined on red deer meat and possibly cereal about four hours before his death.

But a team led by microbiologist Frank Maixner of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, recently reexamined computed tomography scans taken in 2005 and spotted, for the first time, the Iceman’s stomach. The organ had moved upward to an unusual position, and it looked full. When they took a sample of the stomach contents and sequenced the DNA of the animal fibers they found, they discovered that Otzi, just 30 to 120 minutes before his death, had dined on the meat of an Alpine ibex, an animal that frequents high elevations and whose body parts were once thought to possess medicinal qualities.

“We are now inching our way to the last minutes of the Iceman,” said Niels Lynnerup, a specialist in forensic medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

Otzi dined on red deer meat and possibly cereal shortly before his death, probably between the ages of 35 and 40. (ANDREA SOLERO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Dentist Roger Seiler and anatomist Frank Ruhli of the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich examined the dental health of the Iceman, who probably died between the ages of 35 and 40. Previously, researchers examining radiological images of his teeth discerned no trace of cavities or other dental problems. But the Swiss team created new three-dimensional images of the ancient traveler’s dentition, and these showed that the Iceman had suffered a blunt-force trauma to two teeth — possibly a blow to the mouth — at least several days before his death and he was plagued by both periodontal disease and cavities. The cavities, Seiler said in his talk, confirm that the Iceman ate a diet abounding in carbohydrates, such as bread or cereal, and reveal that he possessed a “heavy bacterial dose on these teeth.”

Heather Pringle, ScienceNOW

ScienceNOW is the daily online news service of the journal Science.