Solving An Ancient Murder

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Ötzi's body was discovered in the Tisenjoch area of the Öztal Alps (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Marco Samadelli)

Science in Society (SiS) is proud to feature the winners of the "Integrated Graduate Program in the Life Sciences (IGP) Science and Society Class Distinction Award." Written as part of a course on science and society, these papers were chosen to be published on SiS. This month, we present the following piece by graduate student Craig Smuda.

In 1991, the well-preserved body of a man was found frozen in the Tisenjoch area of the Öztal Alps, which sit on the border between Austria and Italy. While initial concerns of recent accident or homicide were put aside—the body was wearing clothes and had tools that were clearly archaic—the discovery would lead to a forensic investigation. Only this murder mystery was 5000 years old.   

The man, now commonly known as “Ötzi,” was a rare find, but not initially a surprising one. The dry, cold environment of a glacier is excellent for the creation of natural mummies, and corpses of up to 400 years old had occasionally been found and extracted from the ice in mountainous areas throughout Europe. However, following removal of the body to an Austrian morgue, it was quickly determined that Ötzi was truly unusual: instead of a steel knife or a firearm, he carried a yew longbow, a flint knife, and, most intriguingly, a copper axe. This last feature dated him outside recorded history to the European Copper Age: he had likely been entombed in the glacier not for tens or hundreds of years, but for thousands. When his body was finally definitively dated, it was found to come from about 3300 BC, almost 500 years prior to the assumed start date for the use of copper in Europe and more than 5000 years ago. By the chance location of his death, Ötzi became the best-preserved artifact of his very remote era.

Ötzi's remains are kept in a temperature controlled cell at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)Ötzi's remains are kept in a temperature controlled cell at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)It was initially assumed that Ötzi had died accidentally of exposure—a traveler meeting misfortune of weather or injury on the ice.  This was a reasonable first assumption, given the surroundings in which he was found and the cause of death determined for several other modern ice mummies. Also, at forty-five, Ötzi would have been considered old in his day: his arteries showed evidence of hardening, and there were signs of osteoarthritis in several of his joints. He also had recently been ill—from markings on his fingernails, researchers can infer periods of immunological stress in the weeks before he died. Closer examination, however, illuminated a new picture, and one that is in many ways much more compelling. Ötzi was not killed by misadventure or disease, but died of injuries inflicted by weapons: he is one of the oldest known victims of homicide.

Despite substantial speculation by researchers, a detailed investigation of Ötzi’s injuries was hampered by the need to keep his body in good condition. Traditional autopsy techniques would be far too destructive, limiting investigators to taking just small samples from his body and possessions. As a result, definitive evidence for the cause of Ötzi’s death did not emerge until 2001. At this time, noninvasive X-ray and CT scans revealed the presence of a stone arrowhead lodged within Ötzi’s left shoulder. The shaft of the arrow had been pulled out while he was still alive. Despite the massive blood loss that an arrow to this region of the body would cause, further examination also revealed injury to the brain, indicating that the ultimate cause of death may instead have been a strike to the head, either through fainting and hitting the ground or from a weapon. 

A naturalistic reconstruction created by brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennisof what Ötzi and his belongings may have looked like, based on scientific principles (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)A naturalistic reconstruction created by brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennisof what Ötzi and his clothing may have looked like, based on scientific principles (© South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Ochsenreiter) Blood found on his weapons and clothes contained DNA from four other people. Other wounds, especially a deep cut on his hand, were partially healed, suggesting that Ötzi had been in a protracted battle with his assailants that lasted several days before his mortal injury. Multiple explanations have been offered to fit this evidence into a narrative. Was Ötzi the victim of banditry, or a bandit himself? Was he killed in a tribal skirmish? Was he turned on by the members of his own tribe, for ritual reasons or in response to a dispute? Despite the wide range of physical and scientific evidence available, his death will in many ways remain a mystery.

However, investigations around Ötzi have shed light on the lives of at least some Europeans of his era.  We know, for example, that the mountains were not his home: the types of pollen found on his body come from lower-altitude plants. And we know from DNA analysis of his stomach contents that his last two meals had consisted of ibex (goat) and then deer meat, along with some grains. His clothes were sophisticated and well crafted; his shoes were so remarkable that a shoemaker produced modern replicas for sale to working ice climbers. He also carried what may have been a primitive first aid kit, containing a fungus known to have antibiotic affects. It may have been affective against a parasite, whipworm, found in Ötzi’s gut.

But it is Ötzi’s death that remains so fascinating, possibly because it is so familiar. Its circumstances form a pattern that piques the modern mind: that of a murder mystery. Seen from this light, much of the debate over the causes of Ötzi’s death is a matter of forensic and not anthropological science. Indeed, when the specific techniques used to analyze the body are considered, the line blurs further: most of the analyses discussed above are part of the toolkit of modern forensic investigators. 

While there is no way that justice can be pursued when all of the principals of the case have been dead for five millennia, much of the public interest in Ötzi seems directed in bringing closure to his case, in the same way that it would be pursued for a contemporary body found in similar circumstances. However, like many modern mystery stories, it is also an illustration of what physical evidence cannot show us. The true reasons behind Ötzi’s death will forever remain hidden, not simply because the physical evidence is incomplete, but because physical evidence can only tell us part of his story. With Ötzi and his killers both long dead and without any sort of record from his preliterate society, there is no way that we can determine the motivations behind his murder. Though we may make suppositions based on the physical evidence, the minds of the people of that era are forever closed to us.

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