Forensic Science Reveals an Ancient Hunter's Last Meal

If you don't know who Otzi the Iceman is, you should. This remarkably well-preserved, 5,300-year-old Neolithic hunter, discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 with a longbow at his side, is a fascinating reminder of man as ancient hunter. Now, scientists have gone CSI on Otzi to determine how he died and what he did in the hours before his death.

From this story in Cosmos magazine:
In the years since his discovery, he has been subject to countless, delicate examinations. Now, three recent studies give us the most definitive account of how the Iceman came to be slain. "The unique thing about this find is that a man has been preserved in full dress with all his equipment," says Angelika Fleckinger, director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where Ötzi resides today.

"Ötzi is much older than any other glacier mummy and is a very rare case in which mummification took place by dehydration before the body became embedded in glacier ice," say researchers led by Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. "Even the food residue in his digestive tract was very well preserved, and a test sample provided evidence of his diet, environment, and season of death." Oeggl's team have used the remains of Ötzi's last meals (including ibex, grains and red deer meat) and tiny traces of different pollens, to reveal his whereabouts over his last 33 hours with surprising clarity. "Ötzi's movements in his last days from sub-alpine regions down to the valley bottoms and then up to alpine regions again, as well as his lethal injury by an arrowhead, confirm that Ötzi's last days were hectic and violent, which corroborates parts of [the] disaster theory," they write.

This disaster theory, first proposed by the University of Innsbruck's Konrad Spindler in 1995, purports that Ötzi came into conflict with others several days before his death, and sustained knife wounds to his hand. He then fled into the mountains and was in the process of fashioning a longbow and quiver of arrows to defend himself.

There is some debate as to whether Otzi's bow was in fact a finished weapon (Here's an interesting if technical evaluation of Otzi's bow) and with Ibex and red deer meat in Otzi's stomach I would argue that Otzi's bow was as much for hunting as self-defense. Nevertheless, it's amazing what modern science is teaching us about ancient hunters, and as we go forward it's pretty darn cool to look back from whence we came, isn't it?