Otzi the Iceman and life after death

In Science Ink, Carl Zimmer's new book collecting photos of cool science tattoos and the stories behind them, there's a photo of a guy who got tattoos to match those found on Otzi, aka The Iceman, who died more than 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps.

Mike Goldstein, the guy who got the tattoo, said the series of 10 simple lines arranged in groups of four, three, and three served to remind him that you don't have to be incredibly important during your lifetime in order to be important. "It reminds me that I can live however I want," he says in the book. "I don't have to work in an office or wear a tie, as are the expectations of our culture. I can walk across the Alps and die in a swamp, and that's OK."

I was reminded of that quote today, while reading my news stream. There's no evidence that Otzi was a particularly important figure to his culture. But here we are, thousands of years later, still debating the minutia of how he died. Emily Sohn writes about new Otzi research for Discover News:

...new analyses have revealed that a deep cut likely led to heavy bleeding in the man's eye. In the cold, high-altitude conditions where he was found, that kind of injury would have been tough to recover from.

The official opinion remains that an arrow in his left shoulder was the cause of death for Ötzi. But the new study raises the possibility -- for some, at least -- that he fell over after being shot by an arrow. And, at higher than 10,000 feet in elevation, his alpine fall may have made the situation much worse.

"Maybe he fell down or maybe he had a fight up there, nobody knows," said Wolfgang Recheis, a physicist in the radiology department at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "With this cut alone, at 3,250 meters, it would have been a deadly wound up there. Bleeding to death in the late afternoon when it was getting cold up there, this could be really dangerous."

Granted, most of us have a better chance of making an impact after our deaths by helping other people during our lives. Or by donating our bodies to science. But it's still interesting to think about all that could happen to you thousands of years after you're gone.


  1. I still can’t believe how many years it took for someone to notice the dang arrowhead lodged in the guy’s back. I’m no forensic pathologist, but it seems like that should have been one of the first things to stand out in the x-rays.

  2. This poor dude has been mined for so much information and scientific “glory” that he should be renamed Kimberley.

  3. Also, on the subject of donating your body for science: http://boingboing.net/2011/05/31/the-red-market-book.html

  4. “Bleeding to death in the late afternoon when it was getting cold up there, this could be really dangerous.”
    Yep. Gotta agree.  Bleeding to death can be really dangerous.

  5. “There’s no evidence that Otzi was a particularly important figure to his culture.”

    Actually there is some evidence that Otzi might have been important, at least in his little community.  He was found with a copper axe (before the find, copper smelting was not thought to be developed until at least a thousand years later).  Some believe that the axe was a status symbol meaning Otzi was in fact important to his community.  Also he was probably murdered so there is the mystery around that. http://www.iceman.it/en/axe

  6. And back home, the argument ist still raging over whether he was Austrian or Italian, because he died right next to the modern border. On the Italian side, which is the chief argument.

    Considering that he is a couple of thousand years older than any notion of complex civilization, it seems a bit silly to have a multiple-decade multi-million dollar argument which basically comes to down to being a matter of principle.

    I guess storing him in South Tyrol is a good compromise, considering the people there have evaded the argument whether they’re Italian or Austrian for years as well, and with quite some skill.

    1. If they wanted to get particularly particular about his “citizenship,” maybe they could analyze the enamel in his teeth for isotopes specific to the drinking water in the area where he grew up. Unless the isotopes have changed over the last five thousand years. I’m sure someone on the Boing would know for sure about that. Maybe he got shot with the arrow and then the archer planted the axe on him so it looked like self-defence. ; )

      1. Analysis of pollen, dust grains and the isotopic composition of his tooth enamel indicates that he spent his childhood near the present village of Feldthurns,  north of Bolzano, but later went to live in valleys about 50 kilometres further north. 
        He grew up in pre-Italy but emigrated to pre-Österreich (Austria).

    1. That does clear it up for me somewhat. Like I said, I’m no forensic pathologist. I still hope that team isn’t ever called upon to investigate a contemporary murder, though… the culprit might be long dead before they find the bullet wound.

      1. Remember that a coroner basically has permission to take apart a body as much as they need to in order to find the cause of death and other medical evidence; Otzi is a one-of-a-kind find and therefore I think they’re a bit more reluctant to perform invasive/destructive tests and procedures on the corpse. Plus, there’s not exactly a huge body of prior knowledge on what to look for in a 5000-year-old corpse.

    2. It took so long to notice the arrowhead because stone is similar in density to bone, and people looking at the xrays couldn’t see the difference.

      Given that radiologists are trained to spot diseased tissue in the midst of healthy tissue, I’m not sure that argument really flies.  Unless they never bothered to have a trained radiologist look at the films.

  7. Business idea: An extreme burial service that implants people into the perma-ice to preserve them for 5000 years for people to oogle and ponder…

  8. I seem to recall there being plausible conjecture that Otzi might have been a criminal, driven away and hunted down. I find that path towards immortality a little less inspirational.

  9. Yeah, but… expensive MRIs and stuff…

    Oh well. I guess there’s probably a good reason somewhere. Just seems like a big thing to miss on a body that had ostensibly been studied for over a decade.

  10. Hi – When I was browsing BB this morning I didn’t expect to see an article about myself! Thanks for the surprise :)

  11. The “tattoos” are actually barcodes the ancient aliens used to keep track of their human slaves while they were building the Stargates.

    P.S. – Note to self: Umlaut would be a great name for a dog.  Particularly a dachshund…

Comments are closed.