By | July 2, 2023
Ötzi the Iceman's true appearance is revealed by new DNA analysis |  CNN

South Tyrolean Archaeological Museum/Ochsenreiter

A reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman is on display at the South Tyrolean Archaeological Museum.

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Ötzi the Iceman, whose frozen remains were found in a ravine high in the Tyrolean Alps by hikers in 1991, is perhaps the world’s most closely studied corpse.

The mystery surrounding his violent death, who he was and how he ended up on a mountain pass has attracted fascination far beyond the realm of archaeology. Every year, thousands visit his mummified remains, which are kept in a special cold cell at the South Tyrolean Archaeological Museum in Bolzano, Italy.

A new study of ancient DNA extracted from Ötzi’s pelvis suggests he still has some secrets to give up. The analysis of his genetic makeup has revealed that the 5,300-year-old mother had dark skin and dark eyes – and was likely bald. This contrasts with the reconstruction of Ötzi, which depicts a pale-skinned man with a full head of hair and beard.

“It was previously thought that his skin has darkened during the mummification process,” said Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research, a private research center based in Bolzano.

“It appears that the mummy’s dark skin color is quite close to the Iceman’s skin color under (his) lifetime, says Zink, who co-authored the research published Wednesday scientific journal Cell Genomics.

It is not so surprising that Ötzi was dark-skinned, Zink said by email, noting that many Europeans at that time probably had darker skin pigmentation than many contemporary Europeans.

“Early European farmers still had fairly dark skin, which over time changed to lighter skin, as an adaptation to the changes in climate and diet of farmers. Farmers consume much less vitamin D in their diet compared to hunter-gatherers,” explained he.

“It appears that the Iceman still consumed quite a lot of meat, which was also confirmed by our analysis of his stomach showing the presence of ibex and venison,” he added.

South Tyrol Archaeological Museum/Eurac/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz

Ötzi’s mummified body is perhaps the world’s most closely studied archaeological find.

Zink’s co-author Johannes Krause, head of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the findings suggested that the Iceman in life looked much more like the mummy itself.

“It is remarkable how the reconstruction is biased by our own preconceived notion of a Stone Age man from Europe,” Krause said in a statement.

Although the ancient DNA analysis suggested that Ötzi had male pattern baldness, it is not possible to be sure to what extent he had already lost hair during his lifetime, said archaeologist Lars Holger Pilø, a co-leader of the Secrets of the Ice project in Norway . He has studied Ötzi but was not involved in the latest research.

“Ötzi may well have been bald for genetic reasons, but the almost complete baldness he has now is, in my opinion, more likely to have happened after his death,” Pilø said.

“The hair on the skin will often fall off during (the body’s) stay in and off the ice (and sometimes in water) as the epidermis disintegrates.”

The genome sequenced from DNA taken from Ötzi’s pelvis was more complete than an earlier genome assembled in 2012 when the field of ancient DNA was still in its infancy, according to the study. The latest research also helps unravel an enigma in Ötzi’s parentage, Pilø said.

“The application of new methods makes Ötzi a scientific gift that just keeps on giving,” added Pilø.

The 2012 study revealed that he had traces of the steppe people’s heritage, sometimes known as Yamnayawhich only arrived in Europe centuries after his death. The new study shows that this early result was likely due to contamination by modern human DNA.

“Advances in sequencing technologies allowed us to generate a high-coverage genome of Iceman. This allowed us to get more accurate results,” Zink said.

South Tyrolean Archaeological Museum/Dario Frasson

This is the site of Ötzi’s discovery in the Italian Alps.

The genome also appeared to rule out a previously suggested genetic affinity between Ötzi and today’s sardines.

When the researchers in the new study compared Ötzi’s genome to that of other ancient humans, they found that he had more in common with early Anatolian farmers – from what is now Turkey – who had little interaction with their European hunter-gatherer contemporaries.

“It doesn’t completely change our knowledge of Iceman but makes some things clearer,” Zink explained. “It shows that Iceman likely lived in a relatively isolated area with only limited contact with other populations and low gene flow from hunter-gatherer ancestrally related populations.”

Almost every part of Ötzi and his belongings has been analyzed, painting an intimate picture of life 5,300 years ago.

Stomach contents gave information about his last meal and whence he came, his weapon indicated that he was right-handedand his clothes gave one rare look at what ancient people actually wore. Zink said the team hopes to uncover additional details such as the composition of his microbiome.

South Tyrol Archaeological Museum/Marion Lafogler

An expert moistens Ötzi’s mummy at the South Tyrolean Archaeological Museum.

It is not the first time a chapter in Ötzi’s fascinating story has been rewritten, Pilø said.

Originally it was thought that Ötzi froze to death, but a X-rays in 2001 revealed an arrowhead in his shoulder, which would have been fatal. He also had a head injury, possibly at the same time, and his right hand shows a defensive wound.

“The whole story of the Iceman is intriguing, including the mystery of his violent death … and the question of why he was up there in the high mountains when he was killed,” Zink said.

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