A Neolithic True Crime Case

In September of 1991, adventurers Erika & Helmut Simon were hiking through the Alps near the border between Austria and Italy. They stumbled across what they thought, at first, to be a recently deceased fellow hiker partially frozen into the icy ground. They alerted the authorities, who removed the body and transported it to the medical examiners office in Innsbruck, Austria. Upon further examination and carbon dating, it would eventually become apparent that this body was approximately 5,300 years old. The oldest known natural mummy in Europe. He has been dubbed Ötzi (having been found in the Ötztal Alps) (Smithsonian Channel).

Naturalistic reconstruction Ötzi using forensic methods, exhibited in the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy.

To put into perspective just how old that is:

“He walked the earth nearly 1,000 years before the great pyramids were built. The last populations of wooly mammoths still roamed in Siberia, and the invention of the wheel was still a century away.”

Smithsonian documentary “Mummies Alive: Ötzi the Iceman”

Who was Ötzi?

Ötzi’s remains and the items he had with him have been incredible and unprecedented sources of information about the time that he lived in (the copper age). Even aside from what he’s been able to teach us in the historical and anthropological sense, scientists have uncovered information so specific that we’ve been able to speculate as to who Ötzi might have been, his potential role in society, what he might have been doing up in the mountains, and ultimately, how and why he died (Archaeology).

In many ways, the investigation into who Ötzi was and why he died is the same as in any true crime case.

In terms of appearance, Ötzi was around 5’3″ tall, 110 pounds, and had brown hair and eyes. He was approximately 45 years old when he died (apparently a fairly advanced age for the time). His DNA has been thoroughly sequenced and studied. His mitochondrial DNA is different than what we see in modern people, but his autosomal DNA is closest to Southern Europeans, “…especially to geographically isolated populations like Corsicans and Sardinians” (Wikipedia). As a matter of fact, 19 modern descendants of Ötzi have been found in Tyrol (Western Austria, and South Tyrol which is in Northern Italy).

His teeth had tons of cavities, and his tooth enamel contained “pollen and dust grains” (Wikipedia) which indicated that he had lived in what is now Feldthurns, Italy as a child, later residing some distance farther north, in the Northern valleys.

Ötzi’s bones appeared to be exceptionally worn out; indeed, his joints showed telltale signs of arthritis. His pain may be responsible for one of his most noticeable visual features: his many tattoos. (And no, I don’t mean his emotional pain; that would be why emo-kids get their tattoos. *badum-tss*)

He has 61 tattoos, mostly simple lines drawn in groups throughout his body. Researchers believe that these tattoos were created with soot, and were intended to serve some sort of therapeutic purpose due to their placement; over weakened joints and the spinal area. It is thought that this could be similar to acupuncture therapies, which, interestingly, Ötzi predates by around two thousand years (Archaeology).

Some of Ötzi’s tattoos; South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

They also examined his stomach and intestinal contents. If you’re feeling bad for Ötzi, lying dead out there in the mountains for so long, you can take heart that at least his last meal was hearty. His stomach contained Ibex meat and wheat grains that were not fully digested, meaning that he had eaten this meal just a couple of hours prior to death. His intestinal contents indicated that he had eaten two prior meals, one of a type of antelope meat, and another of red deer meat, with herbs, roots, and bread (Wikipedia).

Although he appears to have eaten well, maybe you can go back to feeling bad for him- he had a bacteria in his stomach called H. Pylori, indicating that he probably had stomach problems such as ulcers (NewScience).

Ötzi’s Possessions

Speaking of Ötzi’s possible tummyache, he also had various berries and fungi that seem likely to have been for medicinal purposes. For example, it was determined that Ötzi had whipworms (poor guy just had all sorts of digestive troubles!), and one of the types of mushrooms on his person are known to have de-worming properties. It seems to be almost like a thousands-of-years-old first aid kit.

Ötzi’s possessions on his person and near him were also well preserved. He had a full set of clothing; a cloak, coat, belt, loincloth, shoes, hat, and socks, all made of animal leather, animal furs, sinew, and various types of grasses and bark. He had a pouch with several tools, including a flint, a bone awl, a scraper, a drill, a stone disc (used to carry birds for hunting), and dried fungus. He had a container made of birch that was stuffed with fragments of maple leaves; researchers contend that this was a clever device for carrying fire up into the snowy mountains. Ötzi would surround the embers with green, live maple leaves, insulating the heat, so that he could use the fire as needed when he reached high altitudes (Smithsonian). He also had a copper axe, a knife, and a quiver with 14 arrows. Some of the arrows and the bow appeared to be unfinished; perhaps Ötzi had been in the process of making them when he met with whatever trouble caused his demise (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology).

The copper axe would have been a hot-ticket item at that time, since copper was just beginning to be used; in fact, the discovery of Ötzi’s axe proved that copper was being used around 500 years earlier than they’d previously suspected (Smithsonian). It’d be the status equivalent having those crazy-expensive Beats headphones, or maybe one of those electric cars, or a Louis Vuitton bag.

Archeoparc ( Schnals valley / South Tyrol ) Museum: Reconstruction of a neolithic clothes worn by Ötzi
Replica of Oetzi shoes developed by Petr Hlaváček and Václav Gřešák, Zlín, Czech Republic
Reconstruction of the copper axe of Ötzi. Reconstruction made by ArchäoTechnik Wulf Hein, Dorn-Assenheim, Germany

Ötzi’s Occupation

We, of course, cannot be sure how Ötzi spent his days, but there are some clues that have led researchers to speculate. Because his arthritis indicates that he was physically active, and because of the location of his corpse, some feel that perhaps he was a high-altitude shepherd. Others suggest that traces of copper found in his hair could suggest that he was a metalworker of some sort (NewScience). Still others feel that his copper axe, likely being a hot commodity, indicates a high status position such as the head of a village.

Retracing Ötzi’s Last Steps

Like any modern homicide, one of the keys figuring out what happened is to retrace the last steps of the victim. Remember those stomach and intestinal contents discussed earlier? By examining the pollen spores within Ötzi’s last few meals, researchers have been able to determine a few interesting facts. The oldest meal remaining in his colon contained spores from pine, which would grow way up at extremely high altitudes, so we know that he hiked up and ate a meal there. The second oldest meal shows spores from lower into the valley (perhaps back to a village, going home to eat?), where he must have later descended (Smithsonian). After this point, for whatever reason, he ascended back up the mountain, past the previous point, filled his belly with Ibex meat, and remained there for the next 5,300 years.

Cause of Death

Another key fact to understand what happened is the cause of death. When considering the fact that it can sometimes be impossible to determine the cause of death for exponentially newer bodies, the fact that researchers have been able to determine the likely cause of death of a 5,300 year old man is especially remarkable. Indeed, some of the researchers into Ötzi’s death are Forensic Pathologists who have been working modern cases for years; I imagine it must have been quite a unique experience to investigate him (Smithsonian).

Ötzi’s cause of death wasn’t correctly determined until 2001, when a CT scan revealed an arrow head lodged in his left shoulder (the arrow’s shaft had been yanked out). Additionally, he had lacerations and bruises on the hands, wrists, and chest, (defensive wounds) and brain trauma that would indicate a blow to the head. According to Wikipedia,

“It is believed that Ötzi bled to death after the arrow shattered the scapula and damaged nerves and blood vessels before lodging near the lung.”

The evidence shows that Ötzi was killed. Indeed, the position that the mummy was frozen in, with his arm folded under him and across his chest, could suggest someone turning his body over onto his belly, closely enough after his death to precede rigor mortis, to take back the arrow that they’d shot him with.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

As interesting as that is, with more recent testing, the plot only thickens. Surprisingly, researchers have been able to isolate and examine blood samples from Ötzi’s body and belongings. That in itself is very unusual in such an old mummy.

Not only have they been able to examine Ötzi’s blood; there is blood from four other separate individuals on him, his clothing, and his items. The skirmish that Ötzi was in when he died had involved multiple people. Here are the locations where the blood of others were found:

  • Person 1: on his knife.
  • Person 2 & 3: on a single arrowhead.
  • Person 4: on his coat.

So it seems that Ötzi shot two different people with the same arrow. We can speculate that he must have had time to retrieve his arrow from someone after shooting them, in order to use it again. It’s also suggested that perhaps the blood on his coat could have been from carrying a wounded ally over his shoulder.


One theory as to the motive of Ötzi’s killer/s is human sacrifice. Many traditions at this time made human sacrifices to their deities. He also had eaten a large meal not long before he died, which leads some to believe he may not have been in the state of alarm one would be in if being pursued. His unfinished bow and arrows being seemingly placed to the side, while his extremely valuable copper axe was left with his corpse, could indicate that he was killed as an offering (Smithsonian).

Other researchers, however, disagree, due to the physical evidence of struggle (i.e. defensive wounds), the upward angle of the arrowhead in his shoulder (indicating a fleeing posture), and the presence of blood belonging to several different individuals on Ötzi’s weapon and on his person.

Additionally, when it comes to the copper axe being left with Ötzi- some feel that this is evidence that his killer/s were fellow residents of the village in the valley, taking steps to conceal their crime. If his killer/s had taken the valuable and distinctive axe, they would likely be pointed to as Ötzi’s murderer (Smithsonian).

Personally, what makes the most sense to me is that Ötzi went out hunting in the mountains (and had a meal while he did it, giving us great evidence!), came back to the village where he lived in the valley (where he had another meal, again providing us with evidence- thank goodness Ötzi was a good eater!). He had a dispute of some sort (we’ll surely never know what it was about), where perhaps he received that defensive wound to the hand. Either fed up or frightened, Ötzi went back up the mountain, higher than before, where he ate a meal of Ibex. Whoever had beef with him chose to follow him, they had a fight, and ultimately Ötzi lost, being shot in the back with an arrow, and bashed over the head with a rock for good measure.

Whatever the details of what happened to Ötzi, it is truly unfathomable to imagine how his body sat through the ages, so well preserved, waiting to be discovered. It makes me wonder, weirdly, if people five thousand years from now will marvel over whatever is left of us. Ötzi the iceman had no idea that he would serve as a glimpse into the past; who knows what our future holds.


Archaeology: A Publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Smithsonian Documentary Mummies Alive: Ötzi the Iceman

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology


2 thoughts on “A Neolithic True Crime Case

  1. Lissa Fontaine

    Love Otzi. I hear there is an actual movie about him being released soon. The story goes, that his wife and child are killed by another tribe and Otzi goes after them. That’s how he dies, avenging his family.

    Liked by 1 person

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