The hiking trip that young Helmut and Erika Simon took in the Alps on the border of Austria and Italy in the late summer of 91 ceased going according to plan when they stumbled upon the frozen corpse.

Though it was very much the worse for exposure to the elements, they, like the police when they arrived, figured it was the remains of some unfortunate soul who met his end in a climbing accident some time in the past decade.

It was only after the Austrians, using tools that included a hair drier, managed to remove him from the ice and take him into Innsbruck that they began to form the suspicion that the corpse was much older.

The results of radio-carbon dating suggested that the corpse had been preserved for more than 5000 years old.

The Austrians called him Ötzi.

True, time had shrunken and stained his skin until it resembled the outside of a roasted chicken, but although a truly gruesome sight, Ötzi’s age and incredible state of preservation still went beyond anything found before and offered a unique insight into life in Europe at the dawn of recorded time.

The scientists who examined him were able to sketch the tattoos on his ankles and check under the fingernails of his five thousand year old hands. A look inside in his lungs made it clear that he had spent most of his life living in smoke filled huts, whilst an analysis of his bones showed that he had suffered from malnutrition throughout his childhood. A lot of the information the scientists gleaned from Ötzi and his possessions about the lifeways of Neolithic Europe was stuff that had already been inferred, but this new discovery brought things they had previously just suspected alive in a way that was real and immediate and almost without parallel in the history of people studying the past.

Both what Ötzi was doing so high in the alps and the exact circumstances of his demise are uncertain, although he was clearly very well prepared for the climate. He was swaddled in garments made from fur, topped off with a bear skin cap, and also wore a cloak of woven grass. For when the evening fell he was carrying pyrite stone to make the sparks he would need to start his campfire.

A few seeds caught in his clothing indicate that, in the days before he died, he had been in a farming village down on what is today the Italian side of the Alps, and although there are a lot of theories as to what he was doing up there the reference book I’m using suggests that he might have been hunting goats. He certainly was well armed, carrying a bow and quiver full of arrows as well as a dagger made out of flint.

Whatever he was doing, it is clear that he wasn’t alone. Lodged deep in left shoulder is a stone arrow-head and scientists were able to identify a dagger wound on one of his hands. One scenario I’ve read is that he managed to fight off his attackers, whoever they were, only to die of cold, hunger and loss of blood as he took shelter in a ravine, although more recent research has suggested they may have caught up with him and killed him with a blow to the head.

Poor Ötzi, both in the way he died and the way he lived it’s clear that his existence was fraught with danger and cold. For me the whole story is somehow touching in what it says about life, always and everywhere and for everyone, being so full of struggle.


Brian Fagan, Ancient Lives: An Introduction to Archaeology and Prehistory, Prentice Hall, 2007