You might not have heard of Ötzi the Iceman, but his story is one of the strangest murder mysteries in human history. It’s literally a cold case that goes back more than 5,000 years and is full of strange twists, turns and incredible scientific discoveries. And right now, we seem closer than ever to finding out exactly what happened to him…
Surprisingly, to really understand the tale of Ötzi, you actually don’t need to start in the dim and distant past. In fact, you only need to go back 25 years to 1991 and to a ridge in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. More than 10,000 feet above sea level, it was then and there that a pair of German tourists made a discovery that would catapult a 5,000-year-old man right into the modern day.
However, when they first encountered Ötzi’s corpse, they thought they’d stumbled across the body of a mountaineer who had perished in modern times. The next day, then, a police officer and the owner of a nearby mountain hut went to try and extract Ötzi from the ice; the lower half of his body was so frozen that they had to use a pneumatic drill.
Bad weather forced the pair to turn back, but within a week of being discovered, the body had arrived at the lab of the Innsbruck medical examiner. Ötzi was then checked over by the University of Innsbruck’s Konrad Spindler, who put the body’s age at around 4,000 years. It later turned out that he was a mere 1,000 years out.
That was the first of many discoveries about the so-called “Iceman,” all of which were facilitated by the remarkable preservation of his body. Thanks to the fact that he was consumed by snow and ice shortly after he died, Ötzi’s naturally mummified remains are some of the best preserved and oldest that have ever been found.
Consequently, scientists and archaeologists have been able to reveal an astounding amount of information about the man. It is estimated that when Ötzi died, he was five feet and five inches tall, weighed around 134 pounds and was somewhere around 45 years old. However, the discoveries get more impressive from there.
We know where Ötzi grew up – around the northern Italian town of Feldthurns – thanks to analysis of dust samples, pollen and the enamel on his teeth. We know what he ate in the hours before his death – meat, berries and grains – thanks to the preserved contents of his stomach. We also know roughly where he ate his last meals – a mountainside forest. Furthermore, we even have an idea of the job he did – copper smelting – thanks to particles found in his hair.
And on top of all that, thanks to facial reconstruction techniques, we know what Ötzi roughly looked like before he died and spent a few thousand years on a mountain. Like many people today, he had tattoos – 61 in total, produced using ash – arranged on his wrists, torso and legs.
But perhaps one of the biggest puzzles that emerged from the mummified remains was exactly how Ötzi died. A number of theories have been posited over the years; initially, it was thought that Ötzi had simply been the victim of a particularly bad storm.
Then a theory evolved that suggested that Ötzi had been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice – this was in line with the thinking about other well-preserved bodies that have been recovered from peat bogs. But a later investigation subsequently revealed that actually Ötzi’s death was far more sinister: the Iceman had been murdered.
A team of detectives and scientists has been given unprecedented access to Ötzi’s remains. Not only have they studied his corpse, but also the items found near his body. They’ve interviewed archaeologists who have studied the Iceman and his belongings, and they think that they’ve finally solved one of the world’s oldest murder cases.
The means of Ötzi’s untimely death was first discovered in 2001 when CAT scans and X-rays revealed that there was a small flint arrowhead lodged in his shoulder blade. It’s likely that – even with modern medical treatment – this wound would have been fatal. It seems that Ötzi bled to death, alone, high up in the Alps.
Using the evidence it gathered through its research, as well as the latest criminology and forensic techniques, the Italian team was then able to put together a timeline of the last events of Ötzi’s life. And it’s a story of violence, revenge and cold, calculated murder.
The tale starts a few days before Ötzi’s death. Archaeologists found wounds on the Iceman’s hands, which suggest that he was engaged in some physical altercation in the days leading up to his murder. But there were no other obvious wounds. For the Munich Criminal Investigation Department’s Chief Inspector Alexander Horn – brought in by the Italian team to investigate the case – this was a major clue.
That’s because the apparent absence of other physical harm suggests that if Ötzi was indeed involved in a fight, he won. And when this is added together with other evidence from Ötzi’s body and the surrounding area, a picture of an act of treachery and revenge emerges.
There were still valuable objects on and about Ötzi’s person when he died, which suggests that theft wasn’t the motive for the killing. Additionally, he had a full meal in his belly, so was almost certainly unaware of what was about to happen. In addition, there is one final damning piece of evidence.
Scientists have calculated that the arrow that killed Ötzi was in fact fired from some 100 feet away. This was no random act of violence, it seems, but a shot fired at a very specific victim, from a distance. The perpetrator was looking to kill Ötzi without facing a physical altercation – and that points the finger of blame at one single person rather than a group.
Horn thinks that all the evidence suggests that whoever Ötzi came to blows with a couple of days before his death is likely the same person who fired that fatal arrow. The theory fits into the modern pattern of violent revenge that we see played out nowadays – basically, it was a case of someone getting their own back.
We’ll never know the name of whoever fired the arrow that killed Ötzi, but there’s a kind of catharsis in figuring out just what led to the death of this incredibly well-preserved murder victim. And while Ötzi’s story might be one of violence and death, the story of the uncovering of his murder is a heady mix of science, ingenuity and crime-solving.
Ötzi might have died 5,000 years ago, moreover, but perhaps modern science has managed to finally put his story to rest. Even more than that, he’s offered us a glimpse into the distant past, from the diet of the day to the way of life. And he’s shown us that, in a lot of ways, maybe we’re not all that different from our ancestors after all.