Until 25 years ago this month, two German tourists found his mummified body wedged into a melting glacier on the border between Austria and Italy. Scientists named him Ötzi for the mountain range where he was found, and they have been captivated by him ever since.
"In terms of his significance for science, Ötzi is not simply an isolated mummy discovery. He could be seen as a typical European from earlier times and is precious for this reason alone," said anthropologist Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano in Italy. "And it's a murder case. That makes him very attractive, even after 25 years."
Ötzi is Europe's oldest mummy, and he looms large enough in ancient human studies that all three days of the most recent International Mummy Congress were devoted to him. Researchers from all over Europe convened at Zink's institute last week to discuss recent discoveries about the mummy and what information might still be gleaned from his corpse.
They already know quite a lot. Ötzi has been thoroughly examined, X-rayed, and dated. He has had his DNA sequenced, (he's most closely related to modern Corsicans and Sardinians), his teeth and internal organs scrutinized (he suffered from cavities, an intestinal parasite and atherosclerosis), his 61 tattoos analyzed (they may have been medicinal) and his stomach contents dissected (his last meal was a hearty serving of ibex meat and cereal about four hours before his death). Earlier this year, researchers scanned and 3-D-printed his body — the model is on display at the Dolan DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Zink's colleagues at the Institute for Mummies also sequenced the DNA of the animal-skin clothing that Ötzi was wearing when he died; their results, published this August in Nature Reports, reveal he was decked out in an entire menagerie: goatskin leggings, sheepskin loincloth, cow leather shoelaces, brown bear hat, sheep and goat coat, and a roe deer quiver.
High levels of heavy metals in his nails and hair have long led scientists to speculate that Ötzi may have worked as a metallurgist, responsible for crafting tools such as the large copper axe found among his belongings. Other scientists have looked at the size, shape and wear on the bones of his lower limbs and concluded that he was built for trekking long distances over hilly terrain — a suggestion that he might have been a shepherd who brought goats or sheep up and down the mountains.
But some of the new findings presented at the Mummy Congress challenge those assumptions. University of London geochemist Wolfgang Müller found that the elevated arsenic and copper levels on Ötzi's body were mostly superficial — the metals did not seep beneath his skin. That makes it hard to determine whether they are relics of his lifetime or contaminants accumulated during the 5,300 years since his death, weakening the case for casting him as a metal worker. Zink is also skeptical that Ötzi could have been a shepherd, because high altitude shepherding did not begin in Europe until after his time.
Meanwhile, University of Padua professor Gilberto Artioli, who specializes in ancient metallurgy, announced that the copper for Ötzi's axe actually came from central Italy, not the northern Alpine region where he died.
Angelika Fleckinger, director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where Ötzi's remains are housed, noted that these results will need to be double-checked. "No one was prepared for this finding," she said in a statement.
But if Artioli's research bears out, it could mean that Ötzi was a kind of tradesman, Zink said — someone who traveled across Southern Europe, acquiring goods along the way. At the very least, it suggests that Ötzi's community had contact with the world far beyond their mountain home.
Another team analyzed Ötzi's vocal chords to figure out what he might have sounded like.
"Of course we don't know what language he spoke 5,000 years ago," project coordinator Francesco Avanzini, of Padua's San Maurizio Hospital, told CNN earlier this year. The goal was instead to understand the timbre and pitch of his voice. It turned out that the man spoke with a croaky basso profondo that could give James Earl Jones a run for his money.
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology also commissioned Alexander Horn, a police inspector from Munich, to analyze the scene of Ötzi's death. Based on the fact that he was shot from behind, as well as ample evidence that he had been injured in an altercation a few days before he died (he has a partially healed wound on his hand and cerebral trauma indicative of a blow to the head), Horn believes that Ötzi was party to a personal conflict that ended violently. It's likely that Ötzi didn't know what was coming — otherwise he wouldn't have sat down to eat such a heavy meal only hours before he was killed. The attacker, whoever the person was, probably fired on Ötzi from a great distance. That person had so much disdain for Ötzi that his ax was not stolen, a tool of immeasurable value at the time.
"Obviously there’s doubts on this because we cannot find the murderer, and cannot ask any witnesses from the crime," Zink said. Likewise, the vocal reconstruction is difficult to prove or disprove without traveling back in time and speaking with Ötzi himself.
There are some lingering questions about Ötzi that will be answered with science — for example, researchers are currently working to reconstruct his microbiome, which will tell them about the community and environment in which he lived. But others — Was he a victim or a villain? Did someone mourn his death? What was he thinking in the moments before he fell face down into the snow? — can be answered only with a well-reasoned guess, or with our imaginations.
Plenty of people have already resorted to the second option. A German film company is producing a biopic about the Copper Age traveler's final days, the Hollywood Reporter announced earlier this month (and amazingly, this is not even the first). Enthusiasts have honored him by undertaking their own prehistoric-style hikes: dressed only in linen and leather, toting backpacks made of cowhide sewn together with waxed animal intestines, three Germans did a 15-day "Ötzi walk" last year.
Even Zink sometimes muses about the man behind the mummy: "You’re well aware that this was a human being and he was living more than 5,000 years ago." he said. "So obviously you’re wondering from time to time what he was doing, why he was up in the mountains, why he was killed.
"On the other hand, as a scientist you also know that most of these things we will never find out, and there will never be one answer about his personality or character. These are things we cannot reconstruct."