A 5,300-Year-Old Mummy with Keys to the Future

It’s seven a.m. on a Sunday in Bolzano, Italy, and Albert Zink just told us that we weren’t dressed appropriately. He didn’t say it, actually, but he didn’t have to. It was the look he gave. He was wearing snow shoes and ski pants, looking like he was going to the top of a mountain range. We were clad in jeans and boots. He was right.

We were headed into the Ötztal Alps, a portion of the protruding mountain range on the border of Italy and Austria. Zink is an anthropologist who has spent the past two decades studying the Iceman, one of the world’s oldest mummies, and by far its best preserved. The Iceman now sits in an Italian museum in a hyper-cooled cell. But Zink offered to take us to the spot where the mummy was found to help us understand why he studies mummies, and the Iceman in particular.

At the peak of the mountain, after we were dropped off by helicopter, Zink told us the rather vivid story. On a spring day about 5,300 years ago, a man wandered up from a village that would today be considered Italian. Someone was chasing him, so he brought all his belongings with him to the top of the Alps, where he could hide behind the peaks and large rocks. At one point he sat down to have a meal, something heavy. About an hour later, someone found him and killed him.

“It’s the oldest crime story in history,” Zink says, standing feet from where the entire drama played out. He pushed himself face down on a rock. “He was shot with a spear, and then”—Zink throws his right arm across his chest—“and put his arm across his body like this! That’s how he was found!”

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No one knows the end of the story: who killed the man, or why. But aside from that, researchers have pieced together a rather remarkable portrait of everything else about the Ötzi. That’s the nickname given to the Iceman after he was found in the Ötztal Alps. He had long wavy brown hair, and tattoos on his back. He wore a size six shoe and had a knack for welding copper. Like many people during his era, he was lactose intolerant.

There are more details to uncover, enough that in 2007, Zink started a research lab devoted almost solely to the Iceman. When we visited Zink in his lab, he was analyzing the content’s of Ötzi’s stomach when he died (“In addition to meat, he ate something else very fatty”).

The question we came to ask was why. Archeology is the study of the past, piecing together details to paint a portrait of other eras. Aside from the cool factor of digging up old stuff, why is it important to study these specimens?

Of the dozen or so studies published each year on the Iceman, several are actually about medical conditions. Ötzi was susceptible to coronary heart disease, including arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. What that means, Zink says, is that heart disease isn’t only a result of modern lifestyles, like eating too many cheeseburgers. Knowing it existed 5,000 years ago can guide researchers into figuring out how it morphed into the human genome. Understanding its origin can help researchers search for a modern day treatment.

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There are lots of diseases that could use the same method. Tuberculosis has been a hot topic at anthropology conferences since 2003, when scientists realized they could find old strains of the lung disease in ancient mummies. Old samples of tuberculosis provide a lesson in evolution, since they were around before antibiotics entered the medical mix. Seeing how the tuberculosis bacteria evolved when combatted with antibiotics gives the clearest picture of how it and other bacteria infections could evolve in the future.

For all of the science the Iceman has helped inform, he’s still in good shape, fleshy and with all of his bones intact. By sheer luck, the conditions where he died—at the top of a cold, dry mountain—were the perfect conditions for long-term preservation. To keep moisture in his bones (but not enough that would make him corrode) he’s kept in a frozen ice cell at a museum in Bolzano. We were granted access to see him through a small window, the way you’d spend a few seconds with the Mona Lisa or the Hope Diamond before security guards ushered you along.

In the mid 90s, the museum built an entire complex around his cell. A nearby hospital built an identical cold cell in the event of a fire or earthquake. To see him, it’s easy to understand why the Iceman has more security than most living heads of state. Lying for eternity, he’s been pricked by dozens of researchers eager for the clearest view of a different age on Earth. For a man who’s been dead for more than 5,000 years, the singular goal seems to be to keep him alive.

Albert Zink’s work has been sponsored in part by grants from the National Geographic Society.