The Iceman of the Italian Alps

What have archaeologists learned about Otzi's existence?

Ozti the Iceman: Reconstruction
Finished display version of iceman Otzi in 1997, Paris, France. Patrick Landmann / Getty Images

Otzi the Iceman, also called Similaun Man, Hauslabjoch Man or even Frozen Fritz, was discovered in 1991, eroding out of a glacier in the Italian Alps near the border between Italy and Austria. The human remains are of a Late Neolithic or Chalcolithic man who died in 3350-3300 BC. Because he ended up in a crevasse, his body was perfectly preserved by the glacier in which he was found, rather than crushed by the glacier's movements in the last 5,000 years. The remarkable level of preservation has allowed archaeologists the first detailed look into clothing, behavior, tool use and diet of the period.

So Who Was Otzi the Iceman?

The Iceman stood about 158 cm (5'2") tall and weighed about 61 kg (134 lbs). He was rather short compared to most European males of the time, but sturdily built. He was in his mid-40s, and his strong leg muscles and overall fitness suggest that he may have spent his life herding sheep and goats up and down the Tyrolean Alps. He died about 5200 years ago, in the late spring. His health was fair for the period -- he had arthritis in his joints and he had whipworm, which would have been quite painful.

Otzi had several tattoos on his body, including a cross on the inside of his left knee; six parallel straight lines arranged in two rows on his back above his kidneys, each about 6 inches long; and several parallel lines on his ankles. Some have argued that tattooing may have been some sort of acupuncture.

Clothing and Equipment

The Iceman carried a range of tools, weapons, and containers. An animal skin quiver contained arrow-shafts made of viburnum and hazelwood, sinews and spare points. A copper ax head with a yew haft and leather binding, a small flint knife, and a pouch with a flint scraper and an awl were all included in the artifacts found with him. He carried a yew bow, and researchers at first thought the man had been a hunter-gatherer by trade, but additional evidence makes it clear he was a pastoralist -- a Neolithic herder.

Otzi's clothing included a belt, loincloth, and goat-skin leggings with suspenders, not unlike lederhosen. He wore a bearskin cap, outer cape, and coat made of woven grass and moccasin-type shoes made from deer and bear leather. He stuffed those shoes with moss and grasses, no doubt for insulation and comfort.

The Iceman's Last Days

Otzi's stable isotopic signature suggests that he was probably born near the confluence of the Eisack and Rienz rivers of Italy, near where the town of Brixen is today, but that as an adult, he lived in the lower Vinschgau valley, not far from where he was eventually found.

The Iceman's stomach held cultivated wheat, possibly consumed as bread; game meat, and dried sloe plums. Blood traces on the stone arrow points he carried with him are from four different people, suggesting he had participated in a fight for his life.

Further analysis of the contents of his stomach and intestines have allowed researchers to describe his last two to three days as both hectic and violent. During this time he spent time in the high pastures of the Otzal valley, then walked down to the village in the Vinschgau valley. There he was involved in a violent confrontation, sustaining a deep cut on his hand. He fled back to the Tisenjoch ridge where he died.

Moss and the Iceman

Four important mosses were found in Otzi's intestines and reported in 2009 by JH Dickson and colleagues. Mosses are not food -- they're not tasty, nor nutritious. So what were they doing there?

  • Neckera complanata and Anomodon viticulosus. These two species of moss are found on lime-rich, shady rocks in woodlands, growing close to and south of where Otzi was found, but not north. The presence of them inside Otzi probably came from their use as food-wrapping and suggests that Otzi wrapped his last meal south of where he died.
  • Hymenostylium recurvirostrum This species of moss is known to hang about on marble. The only outcrop of marble in the vicinity of Otzi's body is on the Pfelderer Tal, suggesting that at least on one of his last journeys, Otzi climbed into the Alps westwards up the Pfelderer Tal.
  • Sphagnum imbricatum Hornsch: Sphagnum moss doesn't grow in the South Tyrol where Otzi died. It's a bog moss and the only likely location within walking distance of where he died, is the broad, low-lying valley of Vinschgau, where Otzi resided for his adult life. Sphagnum moss has a specific ethnographic use as dressings for wounds because it is soft and absorbent. Otzi's hand was deeply cut 3 to 8 days before he died, and researchers think it's possible that this moss was used to staunch his wound, and was transferred to his food from the dressings on his hand.

Death of the Iceman

Before Otzi died, he had suffered two fairly serious wounds, in addition to a blow to the head. One the deep cut to his right palm and the other was a wound in his left shoulder. In 2001, conventional x-rays and computed tomography revealed a stone arrowhead embedded in that shoulder.

A research team led by Frank Jakobus Rühli at the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich used multislice computed tomography, a non-invasive computer scanning process used in detecting heart disease, to examine Otzi's body. They discovered a 13-mm tear in an artery within the Iceman's torso. Otzi appears to have suffered massive bleeding as a result of the tear, which eventually killed him.

Researchers believe that the Iceman was sitting in a semi-upright position when he died. Around the time he died, someone pulled the arrow shaft out of Otzi's body, leaving the arrowhead still embedded in his chest.

Recent Discoveries in the 2000s

Two reports, one in Antiquity and one in the Journal of Archaeological Science, were published in the fall of 2011. Groenman-van Waateringe reported that pollen from Ostrya carpinfolia (hop hornbeam) found in Otzi's gut likely represented the use of hop hornbeam bark as a medication. Ethnographic and historical pharmacological data lists several medicinal uses for hop hornbeam, with painkilling, gastric problems and nausea as some of the treated symptoms.

Gostner et al. reported a detailed analysis of radiological studies on the Iceman. The Iceman was x-rayed and examined using computed tomography in 2001 and using multi-slice CT in 2005. These tests revealed that Otzi had had a full meal shortly before his death, suggesting that although he may have been chased through the mountains during the last day of his life, he was able to stop and have a full meal consisting of ibex and deer meat, sloe plums and wheat bread. In addition, he lived a life that included strenuous walking in high altitudes and suffered from knee pain.

Otzi's Burial Ritual?

In 2010, Vanzetti and colleagues argued that, despite earlier interpretations, it is possible that Otzi's remains represent an intentional, ceremonial burial. Most scholars have agreed that Otzi was the victim of an accident or a murder and that he died on the mountaintop where he was discovered.

Vanzetti and colleagues based their interpretations of Otzi as a formal burial on the placement of objects around Otzi's body, the presence of unfinished weaponry, and the mat, which they argue was a funeral shroud. Other scholars (Carancini et al and Fasolo et al) have supported that interpretation.

gallery in the journal Antiquity, however, disagrees, stating that forensic, taphonomic and botanical evidence supports the original interpretation. See The Iceman is Not a Burial discussion for further information.

Otzi is currently on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Detailed zoom-able photographs of the Iceman have been collected in the Iceman photoscan site, assembled by the Eurac, Institute for Mummies and the Iceman.


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Ermini L, Olivieri C, Rizzi E, Corti G, Bonnal R, Soares P, Luciani S, Marota I, De Bellis G, Richards MB et al. 2008. Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence of the Tyrolean Iceman. Current Biology 18(21):1687-1693.

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Zink A, Graefen A, Oeggl K, Dickson JH, Leitner W, Kaufmann G, Fleckinger A, Gostner P, and Egarter Vigl E. 2011. The Iceman is not a burial: reply to Vanzetti et al. (2010). Antiquity 85(328).

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Iceman of the Italian Alps." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). The Iceman of the Italian Alps. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Iceman of the Italian Alps." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).