Ötzi the iceman is a scientific celebrity, and we finally know what he was wearing when he died 5,300 years ago. Using complex DNA techniques, researchers identified the material in everything from his hat to his shoelaces and learned a little more about life in the Copper Age.
Hikers discovered Ötzi’s frozen body in the Alps in September 1991. The ice had preserved his body remarkably well, turning him into a natural mummy and making him a rich source of information about life in the Copper Age. He was found with a lot of clothing and accessories: hat, leggings, jacket, loincloth, and shoes, along with a grass cloak, quiver, and tools. Scientists extracted animal DNA from various items discovered on the body, which allowed them to discover exactly what they were made from. In a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports, they discovered that some of the material came from wild animals. This is difficult to do: the material is old and has been processed so much that little of the original DNA remains.
The results are surprising: Ötzi’s hat was made of brown bear fur — which could also have had symbolic meaning — and his quiver from deer hide. Because animals were already domesticated by the Copper Age, researchers previously thought that Ötzi probably didn’t hunt much.
The rest of his clothes were made from a mix of cow, sheep, and goat hide. His loincloth was goat, his shoelace was cow, and his coat was patched together with both goat and sheep hide, revealing that people in that time used whatever was available. In other words, even though Ötzi farmed and had animals, he also needed to hunt occasionally too to cope with the harsh conditions.
In the second part of the study, the scientists compared parts of the animal DNA to those of today’s animals. The animals used to make his clothes weren’t wild and extinct species, but ones closely related to the animals that are still around today, further confirming the idea that Copper Age societies had herds of domesticated animals.
This is the latest addition to the vast amounts of information we have learned from Ötzi since his discovery. We already knew he was a tattooed man who has living relatives and whose last meal was goat and who died of a head wound around age 40. Now we know that he came from a society that was more complex than we imagined.