Scientists taking samples from the Iceman’s stomach.
Image: South Tyrol Archaeology Museum\Eurac\M.Samadelli

Since the discovery of his mummified body nearly 30 years ago, Ötzi the Iceman has provided scientists with heaps of information about Copper Age Europeans. An updated analysis of his stomach contents is providing a glimpse into the iceman’s final meal, which was remarkably high in fats.

Ötzi the Iceman’s 5,300-year-old body was accidentally discovered in 1991 by hikers in the Eastern Italian Alps. From his well-preserved remains, we know that Ötzi was about 45 years old when he died and that he was killed by an arrow to the back. The Copper Age hunter’s body was covered in tattoos, and he showed signs of chronic joint pain, Lyme disease, periodontal disease, and ulcers. He also exhibited numerous non-fatal wounds, including a deep cut to his right hand that he received a few hours before his death. Ötzi was also equipped with an assortment of tools, many of which were badly worn and in dire need of replacement. But for some reason, the Iceman did not have a bow and arrow to accompany his arrowheads—a possible sign that he was attacked shortly before his death.

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Animal remains found in the Iceman’s stomach.
Image: Institute for Mummy Studies\Eurac Research\Frank Maixner

Now, owing to new research published today in Current Biology, we’re getting a clearer picture of Ötzi’s final meal. Previously, scientists had analyzed samples taken from the iceman’s lower gastrointestinal tract, but by investigating his actual stomach contents, a research team led by Frank Maixner from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies had an opportunity to study other biomolecules, such as lipids, that are still preserved in Ötzi’s stomach but not the lower intestines.

The new research shows that Ötzi’s final meal contained a high proportion of fat, consisting of wild meat from ibex (a mountain goat) and red deer, along with cereals made from einkorn. The scientists also detected traces of the poisonous bracken plant, which Ötzi likely consumed as a medicine to ward off intestinal parasites.

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In all, it was a remarkably big and hearty meal—perhaps deliberately so. A surprisingly high proportion of fat was found in the Iceman’s stomach—around 46 percent of his stomach content was made up of animal fat residues. Today, a healthy diet should have no more than 10 percent of such fats.

“Ötzi seems to have been aware of the fact that fats represent an excellent source of energy,” Maixner tells Gizmodo. “The high-Alpine region, about 3,200 meters [10,500 feet] in altitude, where the Iceman lived and was found some 5,300 years after his death, presents a definite challenge for human physiology. It calls for an optimal supply of nutrients so as to avoid a sudden drop in energy. Ötzi’s last meal was a balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids—perfectly suited to the demands of life in a high-Alpine region.”

Ă–tzi, therefore, likely knew in advance that he was about to journey through the mountains, which is why he ate a sumptuous feast loaded with high-fat foods before his final trek. Whether he knew he was about to be attacked or whether the attack was an ambush remains a mystery.

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“The Iceman’s stomach content is just a snapshot and probably does not reflect his overall diet,” Albert Zink, a co-author of the new study, tells Gizmodo. “However, we think that Ötzi’s diet was generally well balanced, including game, fat, cereals, and fruits.” Zink says the Iceman appeared to be prepared for being away for several days; in addition to having a big, high-energy meal, he was carrying food with him, including dried meat from ibex and deer.

“Little is known on what people from the Copper Age ate and how they prepared their food,” says Zink. “Our study provided for the first time details on the composition of their meals and also how the food was prepared. Furthermore, it provides first insights into the use of medical plants for the treatment of health problems.”

To reconstruct the Iceman’s final meal, Maixner and his colleagues used an interdisciplinary, “multi-omics” approach, combined with microscopy. This multipronged analysis involved an international team of experts who applied metagenomics (the study of genetic material), metabolomics (the study of chemical process involved in metabolism), lipidomics (the study of fatty acids), proteomics (the study of proteins), and high-resolution microscopy.

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Ursula Wierer, an archaeologist from Soprintendenza Archeologia in Florence, Italy, who wasn’t involved with the new study, says the authors “did very good work,” presenting a “combined broad-spectrum methodological approach to establish the exact composition of the Iceman’s diet before his death.”

Wierer says the new study is offering important new information about Ötzi’s final days, and she found the results surprising.

“I find it interesting that the source of meat is represented by wild animals, especially ibex, and not by domesticated animals, even though livestock breeding had been an economic activity of the Iceman’s contemporaries for several centuries,” Wierer tells Gizmodo. “Ibex is a species that lives above timberline, which would’ve required hunting practices in the high altitude zone by the Iceman and/or his community.”

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She says the abundant amounts of wild animal fat found in Ötzi’s stomach reminds her of the dietary habits of modern hunter-gatherers throughout the world.

“A diet based on the meat of wild animals hardly delivers enough calories to supply a person with enough energy,” she says. “Therefore, among the last hunter-gatherer communities of Africa and Australia, the most fatty parts were preferred for consumption, to get more calories.”

As a result, Wierer says it would be good to know if the Iceman represents an exception, or if ibex was a regular part of the diet of the alpine inhabitants of this time period. Red deer, she says, has already been established as a standard food staple among Copper Age Europeans in this region.

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It’s amazing what we can learn about a single individual, but as Wierer suggests, it can sometimes lead us astray. Ötzi is packed with information, but the challenge moving forward will be in distinguishing his particular habits and tendencies from those of his community. The very fact that he was murdered in cold blood complicates things even further. Just how much of an outlier was this enigmatic Copper Age human?

[Current Biology]