Otzi, the Iceman, Cometh a Long Way

Otzi or OetziLast night, I watched a great NOVA episode, Iceman Murder Mystery. It tells the story of the natural mummy Otzi, a man who died 5,300 years ago in the Austrian Central Alps. He appears to have died fairly directly from an arrow that was shot into his back. After that, he either died from the resulting fall, or someone helped by beating on his head. It is amazing how much we know about the man. For example, we know that he had brown eyes and suffered from Lyme disease.

One part of the episode bugged me. Everyone involved just assumed he was murdered. I don’t see it that way at all. Now the great thing about these kinds of investigations is that you can come up with an endless number of theories to suit the facts. Indeed, I think it would make a great writing exercise to take the facts and create a narrative to explain it. I have a number of stories, some of which are epic in scope. He was, after all, 45 years old—he could have traveled a long time to get to that mountain that he died on. But I also have a very simple narrative.

Two words: hunting accident. We know that the diet of the man included cultivated crops as well as Alpine ibex, a large species of goat. So I figure Otzi was a member of a hunting party. It had to be fairly large. The ibex can weigh 200 pounds or more. His body was found at 11,000 feet—two miles above sea level. So the party would have to slaughter the goat and then carry the meat back down the mountain, along with all of their gear. Regardless, you don’t hunt ibex alone. I figure, they were on a hunt and an arrow was carelessly released with tragic consequences.

Otzi AxThe reason I like this explanation is that it explains why Otzi was left with all of his stuff, including a very valuable copper ax. When the rest of the party found that Otzi was dead, they were forced to leave the body there. I like the idea that they buried him under rocks (the ground would be frozen) at the scene, and out of respect, they left him with his stuff. Or it could be that they panicked and ran back down to the village. Or, as my father suggested, maybe there were only two of them and the guy who killed Otzi went down to get help so they could bring the body back to the village for burial, only to be unable to find him on return.

The main thing is that all the talk of murder makes it sound too much like a Chalcolithic Columbo episode. The scene of the crime was many miles from the villiage. Otzi had had a very large meal within an hour of his death. All his stuff was left with him so that no one would discover the murder. It sounds far fetched. And as we know from modern life, accidents are far more common than crimes. These were not recreational hunters with high powered rifles. They would have to chase down these ibex and get close. It would involve a lot of logistics, with people getting in each other’s way. Getting hurt and even killed would not be all that unusual.

I will admit, however, that I want it to be an accident. I never want to think that one human intentionally kills another. I know that it does happen. But I want to think that Otzi was killed in a work related accident. I don’t want to think that fate preserved his body for 5,300 years just to remind us of the worse things about us. But I encourage you to watch the episode. It is only 53 minutes long and it is really really good. Regardless of why Otzi died, we see the best of what we humans are in the work done to figure out his life and death by the hundreds of people involved with him over the years.


The standard style on this website is just to replace non-standard English character with the standard English character. So “Otzi” ought to have an umlaut over the “O.” Normally, this would mean the name would be Oetzi in standard English. I don’t know what I should do about this. I am using “Otzi” rather than “Oetzi,” even though I think the latter is probably better.

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