Iceman’s Gut Holds Clues to Human Migration

SCIENCE

Otzi the Iceman, a frozen mummy from the Italian Alps, may have died with a wicked stomach ache—which helps date migration waves from Africa and Asia. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to learn more about Otzi.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources, including a link to today’s simple MapMaker Interactive map.

This rugged Italian gentleman is Otzi, the Alpine caveman frozen in time. Upon his discovery in 1991, he was quickly nicknamed the “Iceman,” and has since become “one of science’s most carefully studied cadavers.” Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

This rugged Italian gentleman is Otzi, the Alpine caveman frozen in time. (Actually, it’s a reconstruction of Otzi. He really looks like this.) Upon his discovery in 1991, he was quickly nicknamed the “Iceman,” and has since become “one of science’s most carefully studied cadavers.”
Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

Scientists carefully perform an autopsy of Otzi’s preserved body. His stomach, filled with an “earth-like mash,” was also full of a nasty strain of H. pylori bacteria.
Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic

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  • Take a look at the photograph above. Why has Otzi’s 5,000-year-old body been so well-preserved? Take a look at today’s MapMaker Interactive map for some help.
    • Otzi was covered in ice shortly after his death, and remained frozen in an Alpine glacier until a thaw left part of his body uncovered. Otzi was so well-preserved that the people who found him thought he was a fellow hiker who had fallen down the mountain or frozen in a lake the year before. When scientists looked at the body, they were surprised to find out he was more than 5,000 years old!

 

 

  • Scientists were originally curious about Otzi’s stomach contents, but found only an “earth-like mash.” Yet we know some of Otzi’s last meals were fairly rich—deer meat, wheat bread, root vegetables, and fruits. How do we know this?

 

  • According to Nat Geo, Otzi is “one of science’s most carefully studied cadavers.” What else do we know about him?
    • Quite a bit. Some highlights:
      • The most ghastly thing we know about Otzi is the circumstance of his death. He bled to death after being shot with an arrow in the shoulder. Wounds on his hands and feet indicate he had been in a fight shortly before death and was probably on the run from his attackers.
      • Otzi had extensive tattoos! The 61 linear tattoos, which were made by rubbing incisions with charcoal or fireplace ash, are found on his legs, ankles, wrists, and back.
      • Otzi was about 45 years old at the time of his death.
      • Analysis of Otzi’s teeth indicates he grew up near what is now the lovely Italian village of Feldthurns. Click here to learn more about how teeth can offer clues to people’s origin.
      • Speaking of teeth, Otzi had a lot of cavities! Scientists think this may have been a result of his high-carbohydrate diet. He also didn’t floss.
      • Otzi was probably lactose-intolerant.
      • Otzi, the most famous citizen of the Copper Age, may have been involved in copper smelting himself. Otzi’s ax is made of nearly pure copper, and scientists detected high levels of copper and arsenic in Otzi’s hair. (Arsenic dust is a byproduct of copper smelting.)
      • Otzi has relatives! DNA revealed that at least 19 living, breathing Austrians are related to the Iceman.

 

  • How have bacteria discovered in Otzi’s stomach helped scientists track ancient human migration patterns?
    • Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium found in Otzi’s stomach, is a quick-change artist. According to Nat Geo, “[t]he bacterium accrues mutations more quickly than human DNA, helping geneticists precisely track changes in how the bacterium—and the humans carrying it—diversified and moved across Earth over thousands of years.”

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Iceman’s Gut Holds Clues to Humans’ Spread into Europe

Nat Geo: ‘Otzi the Iceman’ Discovered

Nat Geo: Where was Otzi the Iceman Unearthed? MapMaker Interactive map

Nature: Distribution of Helicobater pylori genotypes map

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology: Ötzi – the Iceman

(extra credit!) Science: The 5300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome of the Iceman

2 responses to “Iceman’s Gut Holds Clues to Human Migration

  1. Pingback: This Week in Geographic History, September 18 – 24 | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: What Did You Read in 2017? | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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