Ötzi the Iceman @ Mummy Tombs






Theory Timeline: The Circumstances of His Death


A great deal of research has gone into the study of the Iceman, and not all of it has been expertly done or helpful. Here is a timeline of some of the intriguing and sometimes far-fetched theories about his death:

Books about Ötzi

DVDs about Ötzi

The latest from PBS's NOVA:

Smithsonian's "Mummies Alive"

Theory 1: Ötzi Froze to Death Peacefully

At first, scientists believed that Ötzi was caught in a heavy snowfall, fell asleep, and froze to death. They concluded this because there were no signs of predator attacks (and because they did not find conclusive evidence of other wounds). They believed that the body must have been covered with snow almost immediately or else the body would have been preyed upon.

Theory 1: Discarded. The first theory was put to rest in June 2001 when the Iceman was x-rayed by a different team of scientists (in Bolzano). They discovered that he had an arrowhead buried in his left shoulder. In June 2002, they also discovered that the Iceman had a fairly debilitating wound to one hand.


Theory 2: Ötzi Was Injured in a Fight or a Fall Before He Froze to Death

Early x-rays (done in Innsbruck) appeared to show broken ribs on his right side. This caused endless speculation about his death: Were these fractured ribs the result of a fight or a fall shortly before his death? Could this fight or fall have led to his death? Or did he receive the broken ribs after he died? Konrad Spindler wrote about this theory in quite dramatic fashion in The Man in the Ice and Human Mummies

Theory 2: Re-examined. The second theory suffered a set back, though when the new x-rays did not show any sign of broken ribs (though it is possible that the broken ribs did not show up as sometimes happens). The Italian radiology team believes that the original x-rays merely show the results of (1) compression (snow and ice pressing against the Iceman's ribcage) and (2) a misreading of the original x-ray (two ribs are overlapping, which can give the appearance of a fracture when none is actually there). 

Even if there were no broken ribs, the Iceman showed obvious signs of a fight of some kind. 


Theory 3: Ötzi was shot accidentally

According to author Brenda Fowler, Dr. Annaluisa Pedrotti (University of Trento) speculated that the Iceman may have been shot by a hunter who buried Ötzi immediately.

Theory 3: Discarded. Studies suggested that the Iceman was a victim of homicide.


Theory 4: Ötzi was a victim of homicide

Again, according to Fowler, Dr. Markus Egg (Romano-Germanic Central Museum) offered the theory that Ötzi was a shepherd who was killed by another shepherd who wanted a larger flock of animals. Dr. Eduard Egarter Vigl proposed other possibilities: a returning herdsman, he arrived home as his village was being attacked, or he arrived home to find that "another man had taken his wife during his absence" (Smithsonian, February 2003). 

A study published in early 2009 suggested that the Iceman was injured in a brawl (the deep gash in his hand) a few days before he was killed by the arrow. They theorize that he fled from his village in a hurry--as shown by his unfinished arrows

Theory 4: Accepted. No one doubts that the Iceman was a victim of homicide at this point. The evidence for injuries received a few days apart also seems convincing. The remaining issues are the motive and the circumstances, and both remain unclear.


Theory 5: Ötzi was a victim of attempted robbery and devised an unsuccessful plan (the Lizard Tail Gambit) to ensnare his assailant

Petr Jandácek suggested that the Iceman was the victim of attempted robbery. Someone wanted his copper axe. Ötzi fought him off, injuring his hand in a knife fight. As he retreated up the mountain, the robber shot him in the shoulder with an arrow and followed him. 

According to Jandácek, Ötzi  planned a strategy to save himself. Using something like the Lizard Tail Gambit (a chess strategy, in which a pawn or two are sacrificed to achieve a better position), the Iceman placed his belongings (his backpack, bow, and his highly desirable ax) on top of some rocks; he positioned his quiver on the ground a few feet away. Ötzi took only his dagger and his container of hot coals. He covered himself in a snowdrift, using a peephole to watch for his attacker. He placed his left arm under his chin and his right arm straight at his side, his right hand grasping a dagger in self defense, in case the gambit failed.

The snowfall was heavy, however, and the attacker gave up. Ötzi waited, until perhaps he fell asleep and froze to death, protected from predators by the snowdrift he had used for cover. But these theories were superceded by another.

Theory 5: A possibility. This is as good a theory as any. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove it.


Theory 6: Ötzi was a victim of a power play

According to Walter Leitner of the Institute for Ancient and Early History at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, Ötzi may well have been a shaman and a highly respected member of his group. In a power play, another group of individuals wanted to assume that power--what better way than killing the Iceman. Leitner believes Ötzi was a shaman because of the possessions he had with him, in particular the copper axe which was not a common object. 

Leitner also believes that the attackers kept at a distance during their attack, perhaps because they were afraid of the shaman and what he might do. When Ötzi was wounded, he may have tried to descend the mountain but was overcome (Leitner believes that it makes sense for Ötzi to have tried to go down the mountain, once he was wounded, rather than up to a higher position).  By killing him in the mountains, well out of sight, his attackers may have hoped that his death (or disappearance) was seen as an accident. Perhaps that is why his tools and weapons were left with the body. had they taken them, others who knew them would have wondered why they had these items.

Theory 6: A possibility. This, too, has possibilities, and is a variation of Theory 4. Could the Iceman have been a shaman (a recent study suggested that he was a herdsman)? Evidence indicated that he was attacked by multiple assailants. But why? This theory offers a possibility.


Theory 7: Ötzi was placed on a burial platform

According to a scientific team of researchers headed by Alessandro Vanzetti (Sapienza University of Rome), Ötzi was killed at a lower altitude, carried up the mountain, and placed on a burial platform of stones. This platform was some 20 feet uphill from the place where Ötzi's body was found in 1991. Vanzetti's team concluded that over the centuries, as the ice of the glacier occasionally thawed, his body was carried downhill in the melting water and came to rest where it was eventually found. Vanzetti and his team reached this conclusion by reanalyzing the distribution of the artifacts in and around the Iceman's findspot. 

This diagram of the Iceman's findspot shows the relation of the platform to the artifacts. According to the scientists, an analysis of the artifacts revealed that they were primarily clustered around the body and the stone platform. Green circles indicate small artifacts such clumps of hair. The letters show the location of the major artifacts: (A) a grass mat, (B) backpack, (C) ax, (D) bow, (E) birch bark vessel, (F) dagger, (G) quiver, and (H) his cap. This diagram is based on one that appears in the September 2010 issue of Antiquity.


However, while other scientists agree that the Iceman's body was repositioned slightly during warmer spells, they do not believe that he died elsewhere or that the stones formed a burial platform. According to biological anthropologist Albert Zink, head of the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, as reported on sciencenews.org, "Ötzi probably died in the mountains alone and close to where he suffered a fatal injury.... The Iceman’s joints and spine display no dislocations that would have resulted from a downhill slide. Intact blood clots in his arrow wound would show damage if the body had been carted up the mountain...."

Vanzetti's team believes that the artifacts found on the melting glacier would have been randomly distributed. Instead, when the artifacts were plotted on a map (see above), they tended to cluster in two places: near the platform and near the findspot. As the authors conclude: "A careful study of all the located grave goods...points strongly towards the scene as one of a ceremonial burial, subsequently dispersed by thawing and gravity. The whole assemblage thus takes on another aspect – not a casual tragedy but a mortuary statement of its day."

Could Ötzi have been buried on the mountain? Right now, this remains another theory.


Other Theories

Was an asteroid responsible for the Iceman's death?

A UK space technology professor from Bristol University suggested that the Iceman 's death may be connected to the landing of an asteroid in Austria around 3000 B.C. Professor Mark Hempsell theorized that Ötzi may have been sacrificed to placate the gods who were responsible for the asteroid's crash. The asteroid event is reportedly mentioned on an Assyrian tablet discovered in during the 19th century in northern Iraq. 

Of course, a thinking person might also ask if the wounds on Ötzi's body indicated that he was a human sacrifice. 



Could Ötzi have injured himself?

Some have wondered if Ötzi could have fallen on the arrow. So I wrote to Brenda Fowler and asked for clarification on this subject. She responded that the original radiologists, Drs. zur Nedden and William Murphy, agreed: 

...that there wouldn't have been enough power in the fall to plunge the arrowhead all the way through his fur coat AND the shoulder blade. Still, ...we don't know how he carried his quiver. It's rough walking up there, and perhaps he could have slipped and fallen backwards onto his quiver. That might also explain the two broken arrows in the quiver.

If you would like to believe this possibility, you must ask: how did his hand get wounded? Did he also fall on his knife?



As you can see, there are still many questions that need to be addressed (and that may never be answered). Perhaps with more research, scientists will be able to discover more information about Ötzi. However, no theory will ever be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (unless they can bring the Iceman back to life)--and many of the theories easily overlap. Stay tuned for the next one.