Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Glacier Mummies

frozen remains released from melting glaciers


Background of the accidental mummies

All around the world, from South America’s Andes Mountains to the European Alps to Asia’s Himalayas, alpine glaciers are rapidly melting. As they recede, the bodies of long-lost people are being discovered. They may have been hunters, soldiers, shepherds, mountain climbers, dairymaids, unfortunate travelers, air crash victims, and even sacrificial offerings. Recent bodies are identified and returned to family members for burial. Older bodies are usually of archaeological and scientific interest; these are studied so that scientists and historians can learn more about the person and their civilization or society.

Many glaciologists predict that Earth's alpine glaciers will disappear within the next fifty years or less. As they do, more bodies--recent and ancient--will be discovered. Such discoveries are a mixed blessing, however. What will happen if alpine glaciers disappear altogether?

How they are made

Most glacier mummies are created when a person falls into a crevasse and dies. The body remains under the surface of the glacier, frozen and entombed in the ice, as the glacier moves downward, much like a conveyor belt. Eventually the frozen body will reach the end of the glacier and be released from its grip. As the bodies move beneath the glacier, the ice above them grinds against their remains and often pulverizes them. This is why many glacier mummies are found in pieces.

Other glacier mummies are created when a person is buried in a glacial area, either deliberately (victims of sacrifice) or accidentally (air crash victims).

Some glacier mummies

1. Ötzi. The most famous and oldest (approximately 5,300 years ago) human glacier mummy of all, the Iceman was discovered at the melting edge of the Niederjoch Glacier along the border of Italy and Austria. Unlike most other glacier mummies, his body was found intact, thanks to his protected position in a small gully beneath the glacier. The glacier moved above the Iceman, allowing him to stay securely in place.

2. Inca children. Made between 1438 to 1532 during the time of the Inca empire, some children sacrificed on the mountain tops became natural mummies, because of the freezing temperatures and the dry, windy mountain air. One of the most famous of the Inca sacrifices is Juanita the Ice Maiden.

3. Kwäday Dan Ts’ìnchí. Although scientists originally thought that this man found in a melting Canadian glacier was quite old, recent test results indicate that he lived between 1670 and 1850. Still his discovery has provided a great deal of information about the life and times of the native peoples of northwestern North America. He is also a source of great pride to the people of the First Nations.

4. Lost people from the Alps. The soldier from the Theodul Glacier and the dairy maid from the Porchabella Glacier are but two of the many unfortunate people whose remains have been found at the edge of glaciers melting in Europe. You can read about them in Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past.

Another interesting discovery in the Alps might be Norbert Mattersberger. In 1929, the partial body of a man was found on the Gradetzkees Glacier of Austria. His abdomen was fairly well preserved, but his head and the lower part of his right leg were missing. Near him were some bits of clothing, a knife, a pocket watch, a rusted rifle, and the remnants of pear wood binoculars. His remains and the artifacts were discovered at the snout of the glacier, some 30 feet below a crevasse.

Authorities began to piece together information about the corpse. His knife was monogrammed with the letter M. His firearm, a single-shot muzzle-loading rifle with an octagon barrel, was quite unique with its flower-carved walnut stock. Experts told police inspectors that this type of rifle was made between 1830 and 1850 and was most likely the gun of a poacher (that is, an illegal hunter).

          When the investigation was over, the police concluded that the body was that of Norbert Mattersberger, who was born in 1796 and who disappeared in 1839 after going out to hunt.

The death of a hunter—even one who may have been hunting illegally—hiking across an alpine glacier is not completely unexpected. But the case took another turn, when a local newspaper reported a story that had happened some 30 years earlier. Near death, in about the year 1899, a man confessed that he had killed another hunter by pushing him over a cliff. Then he disposed of the body by throwing it into a crevasse. He did not give the name of the other hunter…but some wonder if it might not have been Norbert Mattersberger.

5. Crash remains from Mont Blanc (France). Two plane crashes into the Les Bossons Glacier on Mount Blanc, one in 1950 and the other in 1966, attracted a great deal of attention, especially when the artifacts and bodies began to be recovered many years later.

Artifacts from the crash of the Malabar Princess, which killed 48 people in 1950, reappeared almost 30 years later, when a sack of mail in 1978 and part of the landing gear in 1986 were found. In 1992, the partial remains of the 117 passengers and crew killed in the 1966 crash of the Kanchenjunga accident began to emerge. A mountain guide at Chamonix reported that he “found a perfectly-preserved hand, a torso, some log books, saris, and a spoon. The skin of the blackened human remains was like parchment, having been stripped of all its fat by the glacier water." No complete body was ever recovered from that accident, except that of a small monkey, one of 200 intended for a research lab and carried in the plane’s hold.

6. Leo M. Mustonen and Ernest G. Munn, World War II air crash victims recovered from the Mendel Glacier (California). Two remaining bodies from the same crash may be discovered in the near future, as the glacier continues to melt.

7. Remains from the 1948 crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422.

The crash involving the DC-4 took place on March 12, 1948, when the plane disappeared.  In 1999, the two pilots located the wreckage on Mount Sandford, inside the Wrangell--St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Because there are human remains involved (a mummified hand and arm), the exact location was not announced and the area was closed for fear that treasure hunters will desecrate the remains in their attempt to make money--legend has it that the plane carried a cargo of gold besides its six crew members and 24 passengers.(Associated Press, 7/30/99)

8. Crash remains of the Star Dust, atop Mt. Tupungato. A group of mountaineers came across the wreckage of the Star Dust, an Avro Lancastrian plane and three frozen (and therefore mummified) passengers recently atop Mt. Tupungato, near the Argentine-Chile border.

On August 24, 1947, the plane, part of the British South American Airways fleet, had been on a flight between Buenos Aires and Santiago when it crashed on the 8,000 foot mountain. Eleven people were listed on the flight manifest (five crew members and six passengers).

In order to determine the identity of the recovered victims, an Argentine judge requested DNA tests. 

According to initial accounts, a diplomat carrying secret documents may have been one of the doomed passengers. Some believe that he possessed documents from the King of England. If this is true, they speculate that the plane may have been sabotaged. However, an investigation by the Argentine Air Force revealed that the plane crash was caused by human error, brought about when the plane entered a jet stream and veered off course.

To complete the DNA testing, living relatives of all eleven victims had to be located so that a sample could be taken (by swabbing the inside of the mouth). This has been accomplished with one exception: the relatives of Iris Evans, a flight attendant (or "air hostess," as she would have been called in 1947) have not been found. A public appeal was made to track them down.

A BBC-TV documentary on the subject aired in the UK during September 2000. (BBC News, 1/25/00, 1/27/00, 7/7/00, 8/29/00)

9. Crash Remains of WWII Fliers Recovered from Iceland Glacier. The mummified remains of four RAF crew members, whose Fairey Battle bomber crashed into an Iceland mountain in May 1941, have been recovered.

The plane had disappeared without a trace over 59 years ago, but recent melting of the glacier revealed bits of wreckage in 1999. An multi-national expedition battered by the cold reached the remote site in 2000. 

Besides the well-preserved human remains, team members found cans of corned beef, boot polish, a toothbrush, and a flying jacket. Perhaps the most touching discovery was a watch given to Flying Officer Arthur Round, one of the crew members, by his father two days after his 19th birthday. Its inscription read, "A. Round from Dad. 14.2.34.

The three other crew members were Reginald Hopkins, Keith Garrett, and Pilot Officer Henry Talbot. A memorial service was held in Iceland on August 27, 2000, and burial took place in the Fossfogur Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery  in Reykjavik. (Associated Press, 8/26/00)

10. And...perhaps someone from the Switzerland's Schnidejoch Glacier? Since the Summer of 2003, when a couple found a birch bark arrow quiver that dated to 3000 BC, more and more discoveries have been made in the same area...by archaologists who kept quiet about the original quiver find to stop potential treasure hunters from looting the site. Albert Hafner, chief archaeologist with the canton of Berne (where the site is located), has said that, We now have the complete bow equipment, quiver and arrows, and we have, surprisingly, a lot of organic material like leather, parts of shoes and a trouser leg, that we wouldn't normally find." A BBC report indicates that some of the items (leather and a piece of a wooden bowl) are even older than Ötzi "and date from 4500 BC, making them the oldest objects ever found in the Alps. And from later periods, a Bronze Age pin has been discovered, as well as Roman coins and a fibula, and items dating from the early Middle Ages." What's missing is another Ötzi, but that may be a matter of time as more ice melts on the Schnidejoch. 

But according to an AFP report, many of the 300 items belonged to the same person (goat leather pants, leather shoes and the quiver and arrows). Some type of accident occurred, and the person was lost. Will he (or part of him) be found as the glacier melts?  For more info, here's a link to the BBC article.

Where to see them

 Ötzi can be seen at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy.

The Inca children are exhibited at different museums in South America. Juanita is on display at theMuseo Santuarios de Alturain Arequipa, Peru.  An eight- or nine-year-old boy sacrificed on Cerro El Plomo in Chile is exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago. And "Los niños dormidos de Llullaillaco" ("The sleeping children of Llullaillaco) are exhibited at the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña in Salta, Argentina.

Kwäday Dan Ts’ìnchí was cremated.

To my knowledge, no other glacier mummies are currently on display.

More information about glacier mummies

One book about glacier mummies is James H. Dickson's Ancient Ice Mummies. The books is mainly concerned with Ötzi the Iceman: his eating habits, culture, and violent final days through an in-depth analysis of plant material found on his body and in his stomach. In this true scientific detective story—which includes 16 pages of color plates and dozens of black and white illustrations—Dickson also profiles other examples of human remains preserved in ice in such locales as China, Switzerland, and Argentina.

James M. Deem's Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past tells for younger readers the stories of Ötzi the Iceman, the soldier from the Theodul Glacier, the dairy maid from the Porchabella Glacier, the story of the guides accompanying Russian scientist Joseph Hamel as they climbed France's Mont Blanc, the frozen children of the Andes, the mystery of George Mallory on Mount Everest, and the discovery of Kwäday Dan Ts’ìnchí in a Canadian glacier, illustrated with over 65 photographs and rare archival illustrations.