Scientists Analyze Ötzi the Iceman's Animal Skin Clothing

Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0

Europe's oldest known natural human mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, led a pretty hard life. Ötzi died roughly 5300 years ago—likely from an arrow to the back—and experts who examined his body say he suffered from a range of health problems, including a bacteria-infected gut, gallstones, parasitic worms, and maybe even Lyme disease. But right before Ötzi perished, he was at least wearing a warm outfit, National Geographic reports: a bear fur hat, goatskin leggings, and an overcoat made of sheep and goat hides, among other snug items.

This new knowledge comes courtesy of researchers from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Research Academy in Bolzano, Italy. Using sophisticated new DNA analysis techniques, they collected and tested genetic data from Ötzi’s ensemble to find out what animals his clothing was made from. They recently published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

For years, the specifics of Ötzi’s ensemble were largely a mystery. Two German tourists discovered the now-famous mummy in 1991 as they were hiking the Ötzal Alps (which inspired his name) that straddle the Austrian-Italian border. Ötzi’s well-preserved body yielded scientists a wealth of knowledge, but his garments were too damaged to analyze using standard DNA analysis. And while a 2008 study revealed that some of the hair from the mummy’s clothing came from domesticated animals, Live Science points out, experts didn’t know which ones they were.

“Just based on the hair or just based on the type of leather, it’s not easy sometimes to come down to the species level,” study co-author Frank Maixner, a microbiologist, told Smithsonian. “It was clear to have a little bit more insight, we had to go for the DNA.”

Gathering ancient DNA markers was tricky, as the researchers had to consider the possibility that the leather had been treated during Ötzi’s lifetime. Researchers may have also contaminated or damaged the genetic materials over the years. But in the end, they were able to pinpoint ancient DNA markers in nine samples of leather and fur taken from six clothing items.

According to The Guardian, the Iceman used at least five different species of animal to create his clothes. Scientists had previously concluded that Ötzi’s hide coat was made from sheepskin, but they now know it was fashioned from both sheep and goat. The sheep species is closely related to modern domestic European sheep, while the goat hide was harvested from a domestic animal whose descendants still live in central Europe. Researchers think that Ötzi’s coat was likely fashioned from (and possibly patched up with) whatever hides he had access to at the time. 

As for the Iceman’s leggings, they ended up being sewn from domesticated goat leather—not wolf, fox, or dog, as scientists had once suspected. Goatskin might have been more supple than other materials, allowing him to walk with ease. Meanwhile, the shoelaces in his cow leather shoes were crafted from auroch, or wild cattle.

Not all of Ötzi’s clothing items came from domesticated animals: The fur came from brown bear and Ötzi’s arrow quiver was fashioned from roe deer. This indicates that the prehistoric man might have traded or hunted and trapped for game.

We’ll likely never know whether Ötzi sewed the garments himself or how he obtained their materials. But considering that scientists have identified everything from his last meal to 19 of his living relatives in Austria, it’s safe to assume that the Iceman will continue to reveal even more secrets as time goes by.

[h/t National Geographic]

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at