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"I believe—in fact, I am convinced—that the person who shot the Iceman with the arrow is the same person who pulled it out," says Egarter Vigl. In an article that appeared this May in the German archaeology magazine Germania, Egarter Vigl and his colleagues noted that telltale markings in the construction of prehistoric arrows could be used to identify the archer much in the way that modern-day ballistics can link a bullet to a gun. They argue that the Iceman's killer yanked out the arrow shaft precisely to cover his tracks. For similar motives, Egarter Vigl reasons, the attacker did not run off with any of the precious artifacts that remained at the scene, especially the distinct copper-bladed ax; the appearance of such a remarkable object in the possession of a villager would automatically implicate its owner in the crime.

Other, more controversial research has suggested that this final mortal blow may have been preceded by fierce, hand-to-hand combat. The late Tom Loy, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, claimed in 2003 that human blood from no less than four separate individuals had been identified on the Iceman's garments and weapons. But Loy's research has been aired only in media accounts, and skeptics in the academic community say the claims are impossible to assess until they are published in the scientific literature.

Nonetheless, the idea that the Iceman was attacked by more than one person complements the "theory of the crime" proposed by Walter Leitner, an archaeologist at the University of Innsbruck who is an expert in both archery and Stone Age culture. He believes the bloody mountaintop confrontation was the denouement of a political dispute that began down in the valley, where rivals within the Iceman's own tribe tried to assassinate him. A microscopic analysis of the Iceman's hand wound, and the fact that it had begun to close and heal, suggests that it occurred well before the final mortal blow. "So there must have been some fight, some kind of battle, at least one day—and perhaps even two or three days—earlier," said Egarter Vigl. "The time had come where his opponents had become stronger," Leitner speculates, "but he didn't recognize that his reign was coming to an end and was holding on to his position." Leitner says that after the fight in the village, "It looks as if the Iceman was planning to flee and that his trip was brought to an end by his opponents."

The previous, erroneous theories about the Iceman's demise remind us that much of the current speculation, while plausible, must stand up in the face of continuing research. Above all, this tale of an enigmatic and bloody death atop a desolate alpine ridge is a story about remarkable scientific insight brought to bear on the skimpiest of clues—a fingernail here, a milligram of food residue there, a few grains of pollen—in order to reconstruct a riveting scene of Neolithic noir. Although not a single grunt or cry has passed through the Iceman's mummified lips in more than 5,000 years, the ongoing investigation continues to tell us new and startling things about life—and death—in the Stone Age.

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