13 Cool Facts About Ötzi the Iceman

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Getty Images

When hikers in the Ötztal Alps stumbled on a body melting out of a glacier in September 1991, they thought they had found an unfortunate mountaineer who had disappeared perhaps a couple decades prior. But as soon as it was revealed that the mummified remains dated back 5300 years—and that the man had been murdered by an arrow to the back—researchers knew they had to solve the most fascinating ancient forensic case ever found. Nicknamed Ötzi, the Iceman, and Frozen Fritz, the body of a man who was around 40–50 years old when he died in the Copper Age continues to generate new data about a past era and shows links to contemporary people. In honor of the 25th anniversary of his discovery, here are 13 surprising facts about Ötzi.

1. TWO COUNTRIES FOUGHT OVER HIM.

Ötzi might very well be the oldest person ever subject to a custody dispute. He was discovered in a part of the Alps mountain range that is right on the border between Austria and Italy. Complicating the find is the fact that the glacier in which he was entombed for millennia has shrunk since the official country border was established in 1919. This means that, although the find site of the mummy drains into Austria, the place Ötzi was actually resting is about 100 meters into Italian territory. Originally, Ötzi was studied at Innsbruck University in Austria, but since 1998 he has been displayed and studied at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

2. HIS DEATH MAY HAVE BEEN RECORDED.

In 1991, an upright, carved stone was found in the town of Laces, near the Ötztal Alps where the Iceman was discovered. Although the stone was reused in modern times for the altar of a church, it dates to the Copper Age, just like Ötzi. One of the carvings on it depicts an archer shooting an arrow into the back of an unarmed man—which bears striking similarities to how scientists know Ötzi died. This circumstantial evidence, though, has not convinced most researchers.

3. HE WAS SICK BEFORE HE WAS KILLED.


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Even though Ötzi was comparatively old when he died, he was not exactly healthy. Whipworm parasite eggs were found in his gut contents, so he probably suffered from nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. His body also produced a full genome of H. pylori, a common stomach bug responsible for ulcers and other tummy troubles. There is also evidence that he had ingested a medicinal herb called hop hornbeam shortly before his death, possibly to help his indigestion. And one fingernail was found to have Beau’s lines, which are created when the immune system is compromised. Ötzi’s fingernail shows he was seriously ill several times in the four months prior to death.

4. HE CARRIED A FIRST AID KIT.

Since Ötzi died while going about his daily life, the artifacts found with him give us a snapshot in time. Two particularly curious objects were spheres of botanical material about the size of walnuts that were strung on leather straps. Analysis of the masses indicated they were a fungus called Piptoporus betulinus. Notably, this fungus—if eaten—both causes diarrhea and can protect against certain mycobacteria. It is likely that Ötzi was ingesting this fungus in an attempt to treat his whipworm—the diarrheal action would have helped him get rid of the parasite’s eggs, while the antibiotic properties of the fungus would have killed off other intestinal bugs. Fungi like this were used for medicinal purposes until the 20th century.

5. HE HOLDS THE RECORD FOR OLDEST TATTOOS IN THE WORLD.

The mummy boasts 61 different tattoos, and they are the oldest physical evidence of tattooing in the world. While the Iceman does not have "MOM" on his biceps or a butterfly on his lower back, his tattoos are still quite interesting. They were made by scratching his skin and rubbing charcoal in the fresh wound, resulting in groups of lines or crosses. It has also been suggested that their placement over joints may have been an attempt to treat pain. As the oldest tattooed person ever found, Ötzi holds a Guinness World Record.

6. HE WORE A VARIETY OF LEATHERS AND HIDES.

Long before Dolce & Gabbana dressed dapper Italian men, Ötzi was mixing materials to create his clothing. A study published this August finally revealed the variety of species used to make Ötzi’s outfit. He wore a loincloth of sheepskin, leggings and a coat of goat hide, and a brown bear-skin hat. Even his accessories were diverse: His shoelaces came from wild cows and his quiver from roe deer.

7. HE WAS AN EARLY ADOPTER OF TECHNOLOGY.

Ötzi’s field kit held a surprising number of different tools. There was a copper-bladed axe, which marks him as high status; a flint dagger and its tree-fiber sheath; and a bow made out of a yew tree. His quiver, fashioned out of deer hide with hazel wood supports, contained two finished arrows and a dozen unfinished shafts. He had a net for catching rabbits and birds, as well as a marble disc with a hole in the middle for hanging or carrying dead fowls. He also carried cylindrical containers made of birch bark—a kind of Copper Age Tupperware™ that kept charcoal embers hot for hours so he could quickly make a fire. His teeth were worn particularly on the left side, meaning he may have used his mouth to help work leather. The Iceman’s hair also revealed high levels of arsenic, suggesting he was a pro at smelting ores to make copper.

8. HE WAS A CHALCOLITHIC RAMBO.

Ötzi was short and stocky, around 5’2” tall and 135 lbs, with strong legs. In 2003, an early study of DNA from Ötzi and his belongings claimed to find blood from four different individuals—there was some on his dagger, on his goatskin coat, and on one of the arrows. This finding was never published, though, and has not been replicated since. But other evidence for combat exists in the form of two injuries. Several right-sided rib fractures had healed before death. Shortly before his death, Ötzi was struck in the head. A protein analysis of his brain reveals some healing, particularly in the form of blood clots—but those could have caused a stroke or embolism. The Iceman also suffered a long, deep stab wound to his right hand. Based on the stage of healing evident from the wound tissue, it occurred between 3 to 8 days before his death. And of course, the arrow lodged in his left shoulder was likely the ultimate cause of death. In short, Ötzi was a hunter and a fighter.

9. ÖTZI WAS NOT A VEGETARIAN.

The Iceman’s stomach contents revealed both his last meal and the meal before that. DNA analysis published in 2002 was based on samples of digested food collected from his colon. Ötzi’s second-to-last meal consisted of ibex meat along with various species of cereals and dicots (a group of flowering plants), while for his last meal, he dined on red deer meat and either grasses or cereals. The discovery of red deer in his gut is especially interesting, since depictions of that animal figure prominently in archaeological finds throughout the Alps in this time period.

10. THE ICEMAN HAD A GAP-TOOTHED SMILE AND OTHER BODILY ANOMALIES.

Between Ötzi’s top two teeth is a natural diastema, which is the anatomical term for a gap in the teeth. Among modern adults, about 10–20 percent have this gap. Researchers also saw in the Iceman’s mouth third molar agenesis—the anatomical term for lacking wisdom teeth. Around 35 percent of people today lack wisdom teeth. Ötzi was also missing some bones—the smallest of the ribs on either side. This lack of ribs is not unheard of, but it only affects about 5 percent of the population.

11. YOU COULD BE RELATED TO ÖTZI, BUT ONLY IF YOU'RE A GUY.

The Iceman’s genome was sequenced in 2012, revealing he had brown eyes and O-type blood, was lactose intolerant, and likely had Lyme disease. The mutations in Ötzi’s paternal genetic line are most commonly found in Sardinia and Corsica today, meaning those areas likely have descendants of his genetic family. Another study in 2013 tested thousands of modern men in the Alps and discovered that 19 modern men in the sample shared a genetic lineage with the Iceman. His maternal DNA line, however, appears to be extinct. So if you’re a guy and your ancestors go back to this roughly 620-mile band between Sardinia and the Alps, there's a chance you could be related to Ötzi.

12. ÖTZI IS CURSED.

We all know that every ancient mummy is cursed, so of course the Iceman has his own story. In 2005, rumors circulated that the deaths of at least five people may have been related to a mummy’s curse. One of the tourists who initially spotted the Iceman died falling off the side of a mountain. An Alpine guide who airlifted the mummy out died in an avalanche. A journalist who filmed the recovery of the mummy died of a brain tumor. A forensic expert who touched Ötzi with his bare hands died in a car accident en route to a conference to talk about the mummy. Even the death of the head of the research team at Innsbruck University has been attributed to Ötzi’s curse, in spite of the fact it was from multiple sclerosis. There is, of course, no evidence that these deaths are related to anything other than bad luck, coincidence, or the fact that, well, everybody dies eventually.

13. HE HAS 3D SELFIES.

One of the trends in 3D scanning and printing is to make a selfie or a replica bust of yourself, and Ötzi is no stranger this trend. The mummy has been thoroughly CT scanned over the years for analysis. Earlier this year, those CT scans were meshed with digital photographs, 3D printed, and then painted to create three life-size Ötzi clones. The Iceman’s first two 3D prints are on display at the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, along with 3D printed bones from his body. The third life-size print is being used in a traveling exhibit; its first stop, in fall 2017, will be the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Eventually, this traveling Ötzi replica will find its way back to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology to be with the real migratory hunter-herder, whose own journey has lasted more than 50 centuries.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.