Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lessons From Ötzi, the Tyrolean Ice Man. Part I

This is Otzi, or at least a reconstruction of what he might have looked like.  5,300 years ago, he laid down on a glacier near the border between modern-day Italy and Austria, under unpleasant circumstances.  He was quickly frozen into the glacier.  In 1991, his slumber was rudely interrupted by two German tourists, which eventually landed him in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. 

Otzi is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and as such, he's an important window into the history of the human species in Europe.  His genome has been sequenced, and it offers us clues about the genetic history of modern Europeans.

Otzi's Story

Due to his amazing state of preservation, researchers have been able to learn a lot about Otzi's life.  Based on an analysis of his tooth enamel and pollen grains found on his clothing, we know that Otzi grew up near the modern-day Italian village of Feldthurns, but later migrated to the valleys about 50 kilometers North of there (1).  He was probably involved in copper smelting, judging by the high levels of copper and arsenic in his hair.

On the day he died, Otzi was wearing skillfully crafted leather shoes lined with grass, a leather coat, leggings, a loincloth, a bearskin hat, and a cloak made of woven grass.  He also carried a valuable copper axe, a flint knife, a fire kit, a bow and flint-tipped arrows.  Otzi was an affluent but rugged mountain man armed to the teeth!

Otzi died in an armed struggle while away from home.  He was shot in the back by a flint-tipped arrow, which severed an internal artery and would have been fatal (2).  His body was probably turned over by his killers, who retrieved the arrow (sans arrowhead).  He also sustained a head wound, which may have been due to a fall or a deliberate blow.  Unpublished DNA evidence suggests that his body had the blood of four other people on it-- two on an arrowhead, one on his knife, and one on his coat (3).  Since he died outside his home territory, some have speculated that he was part of a raiding party.  He likely killed or wounded several others and then was himself killed.  Such was the life of prehistoric males.

In the next post, I'll describe Otzi's diet, and what we know about his health.


Unknown said...

I agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates. Just saying thanks will not just be enough, for the fantastic clarity in your writing.

Ewa said...

Fascinating how much we can learn about our ancestors.
Interesting that his valuable stuff was not stolen.

pbo said...

Very excited about this series. Can't wait for the next part. Keep 'em coming Stephan!

Anonymous said...

A documentary I saw about him suggested that perhaps his valuables were not stolen because he was killed by someone from his own village and that the killer couldn't risk being seen with Otzi's belongings. Also that the killer removed the arrow shaft so he couldn't be identified by anyone who might find the body. No way to know for sure, of course, but it sounds plausible.

Todd said...

The USA Today article linked at footnote 3 suggests that the iceman pulled the arrow out himself. If he escaped the attack only to later succumb to the injury, it would be another plausible explanation as to why the "killer" did not take the valuables.

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allison said...

Otzi has the deformed appearance of a grain eater compared to the taller, more symmetrical skeletal structure of Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers.

I read somewhere that the skulls of paleolithic HGs contain intact wisdom teeth, indicating that the smaller mouth and cramped teeth of modern humans might be a genetic adaptation, possibly related to poor diet.

This should be an interesting series.

Health and Nutrition said...

Your post interests me so much! that was fascinating to read.. and knowing about human ancestors, how did they live and how their lifestyle was! especially "health" ..Thanks Stephan!

Adam L. said...


Can't wait to see what you have to say though, sir!

Dawn said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. As a side note of interest, I've been to see Ötzi twice in his museum home; I highly recommend a visit to the town (Bolzano) and region as well as the museum.

Rocky said...

Good writing!

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Jane said...


'Otzi has the deformed appearance of a grain eater..' How do you mean? Which grain eaters were deformed? The grain-eating Hunza of northern India studied by McCarrison 100 years ago were not deformed. Quite the opposite.

Today, obviously, grain eating is associated with deformity, but that's refined grains. Healthy well-formed skeletons need all the minerals that get removed.

I once had seriously deformed osteoarthritic feet which are now, 30 years after I adopted a Hunza diet, well-formed and flexible.

comrade_stalin said...

Grain eating kills. Hunza people have a life expectancy of 53 years for men and 52 for women.

Asim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Asim said...

At least this guy didn't have to worry about PETA..

Unknown said...

He seems awfully pale...

allison said...

@ Jane

Actually, Otzi's stomach contents and worn molars indicated he ate wheat, or more precisely, einkorn (a primitive species of wheat).

The kernels were only partially ground (probably beaten with a rock)and then cooked into small cakes on an open fire.

Otzi's people obviously had not yet learned to ferment their grains to neutralize the phytic acid. And as any educated grain eater should know, phytic acid is a chelating agent that interferes with mineral absorption by the body.

Otzi has the deformed look of someone suffering from a mineral deficiency, which may have been attributable to his grain diet.

I don't know about the Hunza, but they may very well ferment their grains, as most primitive cultures do. I do know this: I've never seen a mineral deficient carnivore.

Jane said...


Thanks, that's very interesting. Sounds like Otzi's wheat 'bread' was quite like Hunza bread: coarsely ground wheat made into thin cakes cooked briefly on a hot stone. Not fermented.

Here's what an article in the BMJ in 1977 had to say about phytic acid:

'The evidence incriminating phytic acid, based on relatively brief studies on humans and animals, is often at variance with epidemiological evidence... In South Africa Blacks in rural areas are accustomed to a relatively high intake of phytic acid. Yet our
studies on groups on very high intakes compared with those on lower intakes have revealed no differences in mean haematological
values, whether in children or adults. Observations on contrasting groups have revealed no
differences in mean serum calcium levels, nor in the mean cortical thickness or other dimensions of the second metacarpal. Indeed,
we have found satisfactory calcification even in groups of mothers who have had numerous
pregnancies and long lactations. Nor in the groups mentioned have we found differences in the growth rate of children. In our appreciation, Third World experience does not support
the view that phytic acid is significantly prejudicial to mineral metabolism or to health.'

Jane said...


What have you read about the Hunza? Have you read The Wheel of Health? I can't imagine you'd say 'grain eating kills' if you had. There are articles on the web questioning the idea that the Hunza were particularly healthy, and the most-read article does not mention The Wheel of Health, which was published in 1938 and should have been a primary source. Nor does it mention McCarrison, even more surprisingly.

The Hunza population doubled around the time of British involvement there, and the resulting food shortages led to a decline in their health. You need to read about them as they were previously.

allison said...

@ Jane

1977? I think you can find more current (and higher quality) data from readily-available sources, including WHS:

"The most basic method of preparing grains is prolonged soaking in water, followed by cooking. This combination reduces the level of water-soluble and heat-sensitive toxins and anti-nutrients such as tannins, saponins, digestive enzyme inhibitors and lectins, as well as flatulence factors. It also partially degrades phytic acid, which is a potent inhibitor of mineral absorption, an inhibitor of the digestive enzyme trypsin and an enemy of dental health (1). This improves the digestibility and nutritional value of grains as well as legumes."


I encourage you to continue your research, starting with the tab on this website labelled "Phytic Acid."

comrade_stalin said...


My source is wikipedia, not obscure, discredited, non-academic books from the 1930s.

Asim said...

So grain-eating qualifies as lack of meat? And you know, worn molars could only be from wheat, not from chewing on things like harsh leather when they were fabricating spears and other tools. Also, I guess the spears and tools were just for hunting tall grass and the leather they obtained was from some magical trees....

Jane said...


It's true there are papers showing that phytic acid inhibits mineral absorption. There are just as many papers showing it doesn't. The chemistry is complex. There are even papers showing it improves copper absorption.

It does inhibit iron absorption, and this is thought by many people to be an advantage. Iron cannot be excreted, and iron overload is implicated as a cause of many common diseases. The idea that prehistoric (grain-eating) farmers had iron deficiency has been called into serious question.

We can discuss Mellanby's experiments on phytic acid and dental health if you like. There is an alternative explanation for his finding that oatmeal made children's tooth decay worse. If you look up 'phytate caries' you will find studies showing it can PREVENT tooth decay.

'The incidence of dental caries [was] determined in groups of monkeys fed a cariogenic diet for 3 years in which sucrose was supplemented with phytate or pyridoxine... Only phytate effected a marked reduction in the incidence of caries... Phytate has been shown to be cariostatic in rodents [5 refs]...'


Jane said...


I am very interested to hear that The Wheel of Health has been discredited. Please can you give me the reference? This must mean that McCarrison's work has been discredited too. I think Stephan will be wanting to remove him from his Nutritional Hall of Fame.

gunther gatherer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gunther gatherer said...

Jane, Allison and Stalin,

Whether grains block mineral absorption or not is only an issue when the grains are eaten WITH other foods. Since there was no refrigeration 50,000 years ago, we can assume Ötzi ate his red deer whenever he could get it, and relatively on the spot. Not as a dish mixed up with bread or grain that have been waiting on a supermarket shelf for ages.

Grains are seasonal when you don't have storage means. Same goes for meat, so they were likely not eaten at the same meal, or at least pretty seldom. Hence no mineral blockage during most meals.

Eva said...

Problems caused or not caused by grain eating probably depend on many factors including, what grain, how much grain, and what else was eaten. I'm sure there was also some amount of genetic adaptation to grain. Evolution never stops. If one eats original natural grains, that probably helps and if one eats lot so fresh other natural food besides grain, the probably helps too. Phytic acid does not block ALL nutrients, just a percentage and it does depend on when it is eaten compared to other foods. Plus if you eat a bunch of liver with your grains, you are still going to absorb some nutrients from that liver. I'd also bet that many could eat some grain and show no major ill effects as long as the rest of the food was healthy. Part of the prob in the USA is we have the perfect storm of mostly grain and sugar eating plus processed foods and chemicals, plus very very little good food eaten by most people. Otzi probably did not have tons of sugar, alhtough interestingly, he did have that arsenic. Humans have probably always had to deal with poisons, just not so many of them as now and not with such a crappy diet otherwise as well.

comrade_stalin said...


You could dump in front of me 100 16 wheelers full of books and it doesn't mean squat.

The facts are that Hunza people - with their miraculous diet, according to you - have a life expectancy of 53 years for men and 52 for women.

This is pathethic! It's even worst than US on SAD.

Anonymous said...

Food can be stored without refrigeration.. and was. Grains could be stored http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2009/07/discovered-a-prehistoric-pantry/

as well as meat, by use of cold dark caves, or salt, or smoking/drying.

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Jane said...


I cannot find the paper showing the Hunza life expectancies you mention. Please could you find it for me? I followed up your Wikipedia reference and I think it might be inaccurate.

I did find a 1990 article entitled 'Household food supply in Hunza valley, Pakistan', which discusses Hunza longevity and ought to mention your paper, which was supposedly published 4 years earlier, but does not.

The Hunza are certainly not particularly healthy today. The population has increased to over 45,000, whereas in the early days it wasn't much more than 5,000. From The Wheel of Health:

'..Here dwell the Hunza, whose numbers Major Biddulph in Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (1880) roughly calculated as 6,ooo people, but who have, since the census was instituted about 1911, it seems increased, to their detriment, to 14,000.'

Lauren said...

What ref 3 also doesn't mention is that the arrowhead was not officially discovered until after a full-body x-ray of Oetzi was displayed - behind the pathologist in charge of his examination - in a documentary. There's a lot to be said about foregone conclusions. I'll be interested to see what you've found!

comrade_stalin said...

@ jane


Jane said...


Yes, I followed up the Wikipedia reference as I mentioned, and found the New York Times article which talks about a paper published in 1986 saying the Hunza life expectancies are as you say. This is the paper I cannot find. I am not necessarily saying it doesn't exist, I just need to see it.

Sam said...

Nice article. I'm interested in finding out what his genome says.

Jane said...


I checked the New York Times article again and it says

'life expectancy for people in the isolated traditional villages, according to a 1986 medical study, was only 53 years for men and 52 for women.'

It doesn't say the study was published, which might explain why I can't find it.

George Adventures In Health said...

Good post, if a little short, I sat down thinking I was going to read a nice long diatribe, and was through it in less than a minute, no worries, on to part 2.

The comments have proved interesting so far, let's see where they end up.

George Super Boot Camps

Heather said...

I'm watching a documentary about Otzi. They are saying researchers are confused about his age because his wisdom teeth are intact which indicates he was very young. Well, I'm 41 years old and my wisdom teeth are intact still. In fact they have never broke through the gumline. So how can research possibly determine age by this?