Ötzi is the name given to the mummy of a prehistoric man whose frozen body was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal in Austria. He died in about 3,300 BC at the age of 45 and his body was preserved in a glacier. Scientists have been able to learn about many aspects of his life, including his diet. However, new scientific methods have now enabled them to identify the contents of his last meal, as reported in the ‘Current Biology’ journal.
The Iceman’s diet has been analysed before, but not in such detail, and the latest investigation is based on looking at his stomach contents. Surprisingly, this organ was discovered only recently as it was not in the normal place, due to the way his body was mummified over time.
It seems that his last supper was well-balanced but alarmingly high in fat with traces of meat and fat from wild goat and red deer. Scientists believe that the fat came not from dairy products, but from the Alpine ibex, a species of wild goat that lives in the mountains of the European Alps. It is not known whether it was eaten fresh or dried.
According to Dr Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, the fat content was 50%, which is much higher than the 10% in the average modern diet. “If you consider the altitude where the Iceman was hunting, you need this kind of energy supply, and the best way to get this is by eating fat; this gives you the necessary energy to survive in this harsh environment.”
Such a nutritious meal would have sustained Ötzi on his snowy trek over the glaciers but it may not have tasted too good. Said Dr Maixner “It’s goat fat and it’s hard to imagine how this tastes. Considering that there was no salt also, I think it’s hardly edible.”
His stomach also contained traces of an ancient grain called einkorn and of bracken, a type of wild fern. This is toxic and he may have been using it as a herbal remedy. Alternatively, he may have wrapped his food up in fern leaves and ingested the toxic spores by mistake. In any case he was not very healthy. His body bears several wounds and he already had signs of blocked arteries although he was only 45 years old.
Ötzi’s body is displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.
Text Alun Harvey