13 Cool Facts About Ötzi the Iceman

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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.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

The Origins of 12 Christmas Traditions

Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images
Tom Merton/iStock via Getty Images

From expecting Santa to fill our footwear with gifts to eating cake that looks like tree bark, the holidays are filled with traditions—some of which are downright odd when you stop and think about them. Where did they come from? Wonder no more. Here are the origins of 12 Christmas traditions.

1. Hanging Stockings

While there’s no official record of why we hang socks for Santa, one of the most plausible explanations is that it's a variation on the old tradition of leaving out shoes with hay inside them on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. Lucky children would discover that the hay they left for St. Nick’s donkey had been replaced with treats or coins when they woke up the next morning. Another story says that St. Nicholas learned of a father who was unable to pay for his three daughters' dowries, so St. Nick dropped gold balls down a chimney, which landed in stockings hung by the fire to dry. But this appears to be a modern telling—traditional versions of the story generally have the gold land at the father's feet after being thrown through a window.

Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote:

"In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was a graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now, however, since the adoption of decorated stockings ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions."

2. Caroling

Though it may seem like a centuries-old tradition, showing up at people’s houses to serenade them with seasonal tunes only dates back to the 19th century. Before that, neighbors did visit each other to impart wishes of good luck and good cheer, but not necessarily in song. Christmas carols themselves go back hundreds of years, minus the door-to-door part. The mashup of the two ideas didn’t come together until Victorian England, when caroling was part of every holiday—even May Day festivals. As Christmas became more commercialized, caroling for the occasion became more popular.

3. Using Evergreens as Christmas Trees

Rows of Christmas trees at tree farm on cold winter morning
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Before Christianity was even conceived of, people used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes during the winter; the greenery reminded them that plants would return in abundance soon. As Christianity became more popular in Europe, and Germany in particular, the tradition was absorbed into it. Christians decorated evergreen trees with apples to represent the Garden of Eden, calling them "Paradise Trees" around the time of Adam and Eve's name day—December 24. Gradually, the tradition was subsumed into Christmas celebrations.

The tradition spread as immigrants did, but the practice really took off when word got around that England’s Queen Victoria decorated a Christmas tree as a nod to her German husband’s heritage (German members of the British royal family had previously had Christmas trees, but they never caught on with the wider public). Her influence was felt worldwide, and by 1900, one in five American families had a Christmas tree. Today, 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

4. The Colors Red and Green

As with many other old Christmas traditions, there’s no hard-and-fast event that deemed red and green the Official Colors of Christmas™. But there are theories—the green may have derived from the evergreen tradition that dates back to before Christianity, and the red may be from holly berries. While they’re winter-hardy, just like evergreens, they also have a religious implication: The red berries have been associated with the blood of Christ.

5. Ugly Christmas Sweaters

To celebrate this joyous season, many people gleefully don hideous knitwear adorned with ribbons, sequins, bows, and lights. In the past, the trend was embraced solely by grandmas, teachers, and fashion-challenged parents, but in the last decade or so, the ugly sweater has gone mainstream. We may have Canada to blame for that: According to the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party Book, the ugly sweater party trend can be traced to a 2001 gathering in Vancouver.

6. Leaving Milk and Cookies for Santa

Closeup image of wish list and treats for Santa Claus on table next to burning fireplace
Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

When we plunk a few Oreos or chocolate chip cookies on a plate for St. Nick, accompanied by a cold glass of milk, we’re actually participating in a tradition that some scholars date back to ancient Norse mythology. According to legend, Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Kids would leave treats for Sleipnir, hoping that Odin would favor them with gifts in return. The practice became popular again in the U.S. during the Great Depression, when parents tried to impress upon kids the importance of being grateful for anything they were lucky enough to receive for Christmas.

7. The A Christmas Story Marathon on TBS

If one of the highlights of your holiday is tuning in for 24 hours of watching Ralphie Parker nearly shoot his eye out, you’re not alone—over the course of the day, more than 50 million viewers flip to TBS. The marathon first aired on TNT in 1997, then switched to sister station TBS in 2004. This Christmas marks the 20th year for the annual movie marathon.

8. Yule Logs

Chocolate yule log cake with red currant on wooden background
etorres69/iStock via Getty Images

Throwing a yule log on the fire is another tradition that is said to predate Christianity. As part of winter solstice celebrations, Gaels and Celts burned logs decorated with holly, ivy, and pinecones to cleanse themselves of the past year and welcome the next one. They also believed the ashes would help protect against lightning strikes and evil spirits. The practice was scaled down over time, and eventually, it morphed into a more delicious tradition—cake! Parisian bakers really popularized the practice of creating yule log-shaped desserts during the 19th century, with various bakeries competing to see who could come up with the most elaborately decorated yule log.

If you prefer a wood yule log to one covered in frosting, but find yourself sans fireplace, you can always tune in to Yule Log TV.

9. Advent Calendars

Technically, Advent, a religious event that has been celebrated since the 4th century, is a four-week period that starts on the Sunday closest to the November 30 feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle. Traditionally, it marked the period to prepare for Christmas as well as the Second Coming. These days, it’s mostly used as a countdown to Christmas for the religious and the non-religious alike.

The modern commercialized advent calendar, which marks the passage of December days with little doors containing candy or small gifts, are believed to have been introduced by Gerhard Lang in the early 1900s. He was inspired by a calendar that his mother made for him when he was a child that featured 24 colored pictures attached to a piece of cardboard. Today, advent calendars contain everything from candy to LEGOs.

10. Eggnog

Eggnog in two glass cups
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It’s hard to imagine why anyone would be inspired to chug a raw egg-based drink, but historians agree that 'nog was probably inspired by a medieval drink called posset, a milky drink made with eggs, milk, and sometimes figs or sherry. These were all pricey ingredients, so the wealthy often used it for toasting.

Eggnog became a holiday drink when colonists brought it over from England, but they found a way to make it on the cheap, nixing the figs and substituting rum for sherry. And how about that weird "nog" name? No one knows for sure, but historians theorize that nog was short for noggin, which was slang for a wooden cup, or a play on the Norfolk variety of beer also called nog (which itself may be named after the cup).

11. Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality since ancient times, when Celtic Druids saw it as such because it blossomed even during the most frigid winters; the association stuck over the centuries.

It’s easy to see how fertility and kissing can be linked, but no one is quite sure how smooching under the shrub (actually, it’s a parasitic plant) became a common Christmas pastime. We do know the tradition was popular with English servants in the 18th century, then quickly spread to those they served. The archaic custom once allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing beneath; if she refused, they were doomed with bad luck.

12. Christmas Cards

Exchanging holiday greetings via mail is a surprisingly recent tradition, with the first formal card hitting shelves in 1843. Designed by an Englishman named J.C. Horsley, the cardboard greeting showed a happy group of people participating in a toast, along with the printed sentiment, "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” A thousand of them were printed that first year, and because it cost just a penny to mail a holiday hello to friends and family (the card itself was a shilling, or 12 times as much), the cards sold like hotcakes and a new custom was born. Today, Americans send around 2 billion cards every year.

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