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Ötzi the Iceman’s True Appearance Revealed by New DNA Analysis

Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman.
Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman. Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A fresh study looked into the DNA taken from Ötzi’s pelvis and revealed a special code in his genes, which acts as his body’s instruction manual. It tells us that Ötzi the Iceman from 5,300 years ago, had dark skin, dark eyes, and was likely bald.

Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research said, “It was previously believed that his skin…darkened during the mummification process.”

He further said, “It seems that the dark skin color of the mummy is quite close to the Iceman’s skin color during [his] lifetime.”

It’s not really a big surprise that Ötzi had dark skin, said Zink in an email. He pointed out that back then, lots of people in Europe had darker skin color compared to many people in Europe today.

Zink explained, “Early European farmers still had a quite dark skin, that changed with time to a lighter skin, as an adaption to the changes in climate and diet of the farmers. Farmers consume much less vitamin D in their diet compared to hunter-gatherers.”

He further added, “It seems that the Iceman still consumed quite a lot of meat, that was also confirmed by our analysis of his stomach showing the presence of ibex and deer meat.”

Johannes Krause, who worked with Zink on this study, and is the head of the archaeogenetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, mentioned that the results indicate something interesting that Ötzi, when he was alive, probably resembled the mummified version of himself quite closely.

Study of Ötzi’s DNA

The study of Ötzi’s ancient DNA hinted that he might have had a type of baldness that men often experience. However, it’s hard to say for sure how much hair he might have lost during his life. Archaeologist Lars Holger Pilø, who is a co-director of the Secrets of the Ice project in Norway, has looked into Ötzi before, but he wasn’t part of this new research.

He said, “Ötzi may well have been balding for genetic reasons, but the near complete baldness he has now is in my opinion more likely due to have happened after his death.”

“The hairs on skin,” he added, “will often fall out during the [body’s] stay in and outside the ice [and sometimes in water] as the epidermis decomposes.”

New genome sequence

This new genome sequence is more complete compared to an earlier one from 2012, which was made when scientists were just starting to figure out ancient DNA stuff. This new study also solved a puzzle about where Ötzi came from, which is something Lars Holger Pilø, an archaeologist who knows a lot about Ötzi, pointed out.

“The application of new methods makes Ötzi a scientific gift that just keeps on giving,” Pilø said.

Back in 2012, a study found something interesting in Ötzi’s genetic code. It seemed like he had some parts in his DNA that were similar to the steppe people, also called Yamnaya. But here’s the twist: those Yamnaya folks actually showed up in Europe many years after Ötzi’s time.

The new study’s detailed genetic analysis also helped dismiss an earlier idea that Ötzi and the people in Sardinia today might have been closely related. When the scientists in the new study looked at Ötzi’s genetic code and compared it with the DNA of other ancient humans, they discovered something interesting.

Ötzi’s genes had more similarities with the ancient farmers from Anatolia, which is the region we now call Turkey. These Anatolian farmers didn’t really mix much with the European hunter-gatherers who were around during Ötzi’s time.

“It does not completely change our knowledge about the Iceman but makes some things clearer,” Zink said. “It shows that the Iceman most likely lived in a relatively isolated area with only limited contact to other populations and low gene flow from hunter-gatherer-ancestry-related populations.”

Life in the days of Ötzi the Iceman

Everything about Ötzi and the stuff he had with him has been carefully looked at, giving us a really up-close view of how life was 5,300 years back. By checking out what was in his stomach, scientists learned about his final meal and where he might have come from.

His weapons showed that he was a right-handed person, and his clothes gave us a special peek into what folks used to wear way back then. Zink, one of the researchers, said they’re aiming to find out even more details, like what his “microbiome,” the tiny living things in his body, was like.

Who was Ötzi the Iceman?

Ötzi the Iceman was a frozen fellow discovered by hikers back in 1991 in the high Tyrolean Alps. He’s like a celebrity in the world of ancient remains, and people just can’t stop learning about him.

The story of his death, who he was, and how he ended up on a mountain has captured the interest of archaeologists and regular people. Every year, many people see his frozen body in a special cold room at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

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