One morning in 1991, hikers discovered the well-preserved body of a man who had been laying in a glacier for around 5,300 years. He has since been known as “Ötzi” – after the location in which he was found – or “The Iceman.” His discovery was truly a sensation: not only was the body remarkably well-preserved, but numerous artifacts were found in the ice with his body, including clothes, shoes, jewelry, and tools. Although there were many mysteries surrounding Ötzi at the time of his death, researchers have now cracked some of those secrets by conducting extensive genetic analysis and reconstructing his life story through computer modeling. These revelations have shed light on the lives of people who lived during the Copper Age in Europe, but also on the ways in which we process and analyze data about our human past.[i]
When researchers examined the genetic material found inside Ötzi’s cells, they discovered that the vast majority of his DNA was very similar to modern European populations. However, they also detected signs of ancient genetic ancestry in several areas of his genome, which led them to hypothesize that he had come from somewhere outside Europe. As it turns out, they had spotted one of Ötzi’s ancestors: a rare genetic mutation known as the CCR5-delta32 allele. This mutation was found in about 1% of modern-day Europeans but was extremely rare in other parts of the world. This suggests that Ötzi may have traveled from a distant land to Europe more than 5,000 years ago. Researchers have since identified several locations within Europe and Eurasia that match the geographic region from which Ötzi came. One of these places is Siberia; another is Central Asia. Both of these regions were uninhabited at the time, so Ötzi was probably the first person who entered these lands.[ii]
Ötzi lived during the late Copper Age, which was a time of great social and political upheaval in Europe and Central Asia. In one of his pockets, the researchers found a scrap of paper on which were written a series of symbols that could be interpreted as a date or a time value. After analyzing the symbols in greater detail, the researchers determined that the date on the paper corresponded to the spring equinox in the year 3350 BC. This is a curious finding because calendars did not exist during those times, so the symbols and their meaning have never been deciphered.[iii]
[i] Kutschera, W., & Rom, W. (2000). Ötzi, the prehistoric Iceman. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, 164, 12-22.
[ii] Bolt, H. M. (2012). Arsenic: an ancient toxicant of continuous public health impact, from Iceman Ötzi until now. Archives of toxicology, 86(6), 825-830.
[iii] Püntener, A. G., & Moss, S. (2010). Ötzi, the Iceman and his leather clothes. CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry, 64(5), 315-320.