The Iceman weareth

The Tyrolean Iceman, nicknamed Ötzi, has revealed a great deal about the diet, tools, lifestyle, health and ancestry of humanity 5,300 years ago since his mummified body was discovered in the Italian Ötztal Alps in 1991.

But they say clothes maketh the man – and now his threads are disclosing more information about life in the Copper Age.

An investigation by Niall O’Sullivan of the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano in Italy and colleagues uncovered five species of animals used in Ötzi’s clothes and quiver, which paint a picture of the Iceman being a hunter as well as a farmer.

They published their genetic analyses in the journal Nature.

Despite the relatively good condition of Ötzi’s clothing, a number of previous attempts to nail down the species from which they’re made, such as microscopic analyses of the materials, have been unsuccessful.

Such information is important to archaeologists because it helps form a more solid understanding of how ancient populations used the secondary products of animal husbandry, which is difficult knowledge to obtain by other means.

Enter O’Sullivan. He and his colleagues believed that they could solve this problem through genetic analysis of Ötzi’s clothing and quiver.

They faced a few issues – with the biggest differentiating the genetic data of domesticated animals from that of their wild relatives.

To get around this, O’Sullivan and his colleagues looked at specific genetic markers, a bit like barcodes, in the powerhouses of animal cells known as the mitochondria. These “haplogroups” are groups of genes inherited together from a single parent and allow geneticists to identify wild or domestic genetic populations.

Using haplogroup data, the team found Ötzi’s apparel was made from at least five different species of animal including cattle, goat, sheep, brown bear and roe deer.

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A shoe with grass interior (left) and leather exterior (right), the leather coat (reassembled), leather loincloth, grass coat, fur hat and leather leggings.
Institute for Mummies and the Iceman

The cattle, goat and sheep all fell within the range of genetic variability that can be seen today in modern European domestic variations. The haplogroups within the bear and deer were also consistent with present-day wild distribution in the Alpine area.

This is a game-changing discovery because the Iceman was previously thought to be an agro-pastoralist.

While the samples of goat, cattle and sheep support this, the presence of brown bear and roe deer genetic material strongly suggests that he was also a very capable hunter and trapper of wild animals.

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From left to right: stone dagger, bows, leather quiver, tinder fungus, birch fungus and birch bark.
Institute for Mummies and the Iceman

The patchwork nature with which the clothes were put together is also telling of the Copper Age people to which Ötzi belonged.

“The coat alone was a combination of at least four hides and two species: goat and sheep,” the researchers write.

“This result may indicate a haphazard stitching together of clothing based upon materials that were available to the Iceman, as ancient rudimentary leather is posited to rapidly deteriorate after manufacture.”

Goat leather in Ötzi’s leggings matches that in some 4,500-year-old leggings from Schnidejoch, Switzerland, so it’s possible that some materials were chosen over others for their attributes, such as flexibility or insulation.

After taking a good look at his clothes, we now know considerably more about Ötzi’s lifestyle than we did before. Yet O’Sullivan hopes that the work of he and his colleagues can have an even greater effect, writing that mitochondrial genetic analysis is capable of assisting in similar archaeological cases in the future.

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