Archeology: 30 years of discovery of Ötzi knowledge

When fog comes up and freezing rain sets in, there is also bad luck. The helicopter that brought the group of contemporary witnesses, journalists and tourism managers to the Tisenjoch at an altitude of 3,200 meters can no longer fly to the site, the weather is too stormy. Which doesn’t bother Reinhold Messner any further. The extreme mountaineer tells his story of the “semi-nomad” in whom he sees a kindred spirit.

Back then, 30 years ago, Ötzi, as the glacier mummy was later baptized, was still half in the ice. Two days earlier, on September 19, 1991, the mountain hikers Erika and Helmut Simon discovered him in the Ötztal Alps, at an altitude of 3,200 meters. Due to the unusually hot summer of 1991, which had defrosted the snow fields, the strangely twisted upper body protruded from the glacier. Only days later, Ötzi would have been hidden under a layer of fresh snow. But as it was, a sensational find was made. The 5300 year old mummy provided unprecedented insights into the Neolithic. The appointment at the Tisenjoch also shows: Like almost no other research object, Ötzi now stands for an unusual mixture of science and tourism.

A billionaire is planning an even more magnificent museum for the Iceman

300,000 visitors come to see Ötzi every year in the Bolzano Archeology Museum. Several sporting events named after the ice man, such as the Ötzi Trail Run, attract marathon runners and cyclists to the Ötz and Schnalstal valleys. And the Ötzi brand has already made it into pop culture. The pop star DJ Ötzi brings the après-ski bars to a boil, while Jürgen Vogel slipped into the role of the glacier man in a film adaptation.

Ötzi’s fame can certainly have its advantages. Global warming, which is particularly rapid in the Alps, has a silent warning in it. The Similaun Glacier, which has preserved his body for so long, is retreating further and further. For Albert Zink, head of the Bolzano Institute for Mummy Research, it is clear: “The site is now regularly ice-free. Sooner or later, Ötzi would probably have been found within the last few years.” Walter Leitner, emeritus professor of archeology from Innsbruck, thinks: “Climate change is coming towards us, so to speak.” Because like zinc, Leitner hopes for new mummies from the ice. But the researchers have a problem: The “best-examined body in the world” (zinc) does not offer too much new information; some scientists consider it to have been researched.

However, this does not stand in the way of the anniversary event on the occasion of the 30th birthday of the found. As it should be for a 30th birthday, everyone was invited again, even though they lost sight of each other. The retired forensic doctor Othmar Gaber, the retired conservation officer Eduard Egarter Vigl and the extreme mountaineer Reinhold Messner came here, along with the aforementioned Zink and Leitner, at the invitation of Ötztal Tourism.

It starts on the first of the two days in Ötzi-Dorf Umhausen, an archaeological leisure park that was built under scientific supervision, but which also includes Ötzi schnapps and Ötzi jams in the souvenir shop. Gaber, Leitner and Egarter Vigl observe how an employee of the survival school, who otherwise supervises courses such as “Survival for the advanced”, lights a fire with the help of flint, fool’s gold and tinder sponge. In this way, transferred to the Neolithic Age, Gaber recounts his first encounter with Ötzi: “I had never seen anything like it: a mummy that was damp.”

After South Tyrol had prevailed over Austria in the dispute over the privilege of the Gletschermann (the site is just across the border in Italy), the mummy went from Innsbruck to Bozen in 1997. There Egarter Vigl was asked whether he could take care of Ötzi’s conservation. The former chief pathologist tells how he wasn’t particularly interested in it at first because he had “too much to do”. Finally he agreed. From then on, Ötzi was no longer packed in plastic bags filled with ice cubes, but stored at minus six degrees Celsius with constant moisture spray – just as it is exhibited in the Bolzano Archeology Museum today. At least: the Austrian real estate billionaire René Benko is planning to build a new, larger Ötzi Museum. The futuristic building is to be built on Bolzano’s local mountain, the Virgl, and can be reached by cable car.

After the scramble about Ötzi’s accommodation, research really got going. So it turned out that his 61 tattoos had medical significance. The scratched points, lines and crosses were on his body where he suffered from rheumatism. An early form of acupuncture? A sensation was the finding that Ötzi had been struck down from behind with an arrow. For ten years the decisive clue, the arrowhead in Ötzi’s shoulder blade, had been overlooked by radiologists.

On day two, the press representatives are brought to the site by chartered helicopter, Reinhold Messner comes in from the other side of the Schnalstal. The site is examined together: it lies inconspicuously between craggy rocks and a snowfield, the surface of which is colored brown by Sahara sand. A red spot marks the location.

Ötzi expert Walter Leitner shows where the glacier mummy was once located. In the background you can see the obelisk guarding the site on the Tisenjoch.

(Photo: Ötztal Tourismus / Markus Geisler)

One reason for Ötzi’s intactness is the location of the rock hollow, which protected him from the flow of glacier ice. Walter Leitner reports on the last few minutes of the ice cream man. The murder must have been a “political intrigue” because the copper ax, the most valuable item in Ötzi’s possession, was left behind by the murderer. The ax would have been incriminating evidence. Albert Zink considers this thesis to be “very speculative”, but profilers from the Munich police also took a closer look at the case and came to the conclusion that treachery was the dominant feature of murder.

When the weather finally improves, the helicopter picks up the other guests

Messner, who visited the site on September 21, 1991 together with his mountaineering colleague Hans Kammerlander, was immediately certain that the dead person could not have been recently injured, but that the corpse must be older. The prehistorian Konrad Spindler later made the famous estimate of “at least 4000 years”.

When it becomes more and more uncomfortable at the site and the announcement comes that the helicopter can no longer approach the yoke, Messner is the first to descend the mountain, the entourage follows behind. After a bit of scrambling, the helicopter appears. While the helicopter is half floating in the air and half balancing on a rock with a runner, Messner climbs in without hesitation and disappears into the clouds under the noise of the rotor blades.

Archeology: It flies away: the helicopter that brought the press representatives up to 3200 meters can initially no longer fly to the site for collection due to a change in the weather.

Then it flies away: the helicopter that brought the press representatives up to 3200 meters can initially no longer fly to the site for collection due to a change in the weather.

(Photo: Andreas Jäger)

After the weather conditions have improved a little, the rest of the guests can also be flown down. The Messners have invited to a reception in their summer residence, Juval Castle. Politicians and Carabinieri show their presence, while Messner and Leitner tell their stories again. Somewhat away from the hustle and bustle, Albert Zink asks himself what new findings can be expected from Ötzi research. “Ötzi has not finished researching,” says the biologist who, in addition to his work as a mummy researcher, is a private lecturer at the University of Munich, specializing in biomolecular anthropology.

Ötzi research is looking for new topics

Research at the Bolzano Institute has meanwhile shifted to other mummies, says Zink. But Ötzi is still a focus. Two of his five doctoral students are currently working on the man from Tisenjoch. You will concentrate on researching its microbiome, especially the intestinal flora. Because it interacts with the immune system, it has a major impact on our health. A shrinking microbiome leads to the many intolerances that modern humans grapple with. Ötzi’s intestinal flora is much more extensive in comparison, but the DNA strands of his intestinal bacteria are often damaged. Bioinformaticians are therefore working on their reconstruction.

The genome of the macroorganism – Ötzi’s genetic material – has been deciphered since 2011. Since then, it has served as a reference point for “all population studies over the past ten years,” said Zink. Specifically, publications about the human populations of the Holocene are meant. In addition to physical properties such as eye color, predispositions to diseases can also be determined from the genome. Forensic doctors are currently working on reconstructing Ötzi’s facial features from his DNA.

Even if Ötzi research sometimes tries to find topics, the genome of the glacier man may still be able to provide insights in the future thanks to innovative research methods. Only with the big question of who killed him (some want to see a woman involved and stubbornly adhere to the jealousy thesis), there will probably never be a definitive answer.

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