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JULY 2007
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Examine the Iceman

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By Stephen S. Hall
Illustrations by Kazuhiko Sano

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Taken together, the evidence strongly indicates that the Iceman's last journey began in the low-altitude deciduous forests to the south, in the springtime when the hop hornbeams were in bloom. But it may not have been a straight hike into the mountains. Oeggl has also found traces of pine pollen in the Iceman's digestive tract, both above and below the hornbeam pollen. This suggests that he may have climbed to a higher altitude where pine trees grow in mixed coniferous forests, then descended to the lower altitude of the hop hornbeams, and finally ascended again into the pine forests in his last day or two. Why? No one knows. But perhaps he wanted to avoid the steep, thickly wooded gorge of the lower Val Senales—especially if he was in a hurry.

When he reached a mountain pass now known as Tisenjoch, he likely paused to rest. He had completed a vertical climb of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) from the valley below, and to the north faced a desolate, glacier-riven landscape. Perhaps the rocky hollow where he found himself offered some shelter from the wind. We do not know if his enemies caught up with him at that spot, or were waiting there in ambush for him to arrive. What we do know is that he never left that hollow alive.

IN JUNE 2001, Paul Gostner, director of the Department of Radiology at the Central Hospital in Bolzano, brought a portable x-ray machine to the Iceman's chamber. His intent was to prepare for a routine analysis of some broken ribs. The following day he dropped by the office of Eduard Egarter Vigl, director of the Institute of Pathology at the hospital and principal caretaker of the mummy, to report that the rib fractures were old and of limited interest.

"But I've found another thing that I can't explain," he said. "There is this strange extraneous object in the left shoulder." When he compared his recent x-rays (and CT scans taken three months earlier) of the Iceman's torso with earlier films taken by scientists in Innsbruck, Gostner managed to detect what his Austrian colleagues had missed: a dense triangular shadow smaller than a quarter and lodged beneath the Iceman's left shoulder blade. It turned out to be a stone arrowhead. This "casual discovery," as Egarter Vigl put it, instantly turned an inexplicable death more than 5,000 years ago into archaeology's most fascinating cold case.

The forensic evidence became even more intriguing in 2005, shortly after the hospital in Bolzano acquired a new high-resolution multi-slice CT scanning machine. Gostner, Egarter Vigl, Patrizia Pernter, a physician in the Department of Radiology, and Frank Rühli, a doctor and senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of Zürich, decided to take a closer look at the body with the new CT machine. In August 2005, doctors placed the Iceman on a custom-built foam mattress, covered him with an insulated blanket and heaps of ice, and rushed him by ambulance (with a police escort) on the ten-minute ride from the museum to the hospital. There, with the kind of urgency usually reserved for humans in critical condition, they whisked the mummy into the scanning suite and quickly took a series of scans. "You had to do it before he thawed," Rühli noted, "so you had to hurry."

The results were astonishing. The sharpened piece of stone, probably flint, had made a half-inch gash in the Iceman's left subclavian artery. This is the main circulatory pipeline carrying fresh oxygenated blood from the pumping chamber of the heart to the left arm. Such a serious tear in a major thoracic artery would almost certainly lead to uncontrolled bleeding and rapid death. "This is a lethal wound," Rühli says. "It was pretty quick. With this kind of bleeding, you don't go walking uphill for hours."

This new medical evidence suggests that an attacker, positioned behind and below his victim, fired a single arrow that struck the Iceman's left shoulder blade—precisely the area at which prehistoric hunters aimed to bring down game with one shot. The arrow went clean through the bone and pierced the artery. Blood instantly began to gush out, filling the space between the shoulder blade and the ribs. In his few remaining minutes of life, the Iceman became a textbook case of what is now known as hemorrhagic shock. His heart started to race. Sweat drenched his garments, even at an altitude two miles (three kilometers) above sea level. He felt increasingly faint because not enough oxygen was reaching his brain. In a matter of a few minutes, the Iceman collapsed, lost consciousness, and bled out.

Then, in a fantastically fortunate cascade of circumstance, the brutal weather of the Ötztal Alps conspired with chance to perform one of the greatest embalming jobs in the history of human remains. The frigid glacial environment eventually tucked him in like a cold, wet blanket, immobilizing and preserving his body in snow, ice, and glacial meltwater. The little ravine protected his lifeless form from the bone-grinding action of the Niederjoch Glacier, which passed just a few feet overhead for the next 5,300 years.

WHO KILLED THE ICEMAN, and why? Was this a Neolithic version of highwaymen ambushing a hunter and snatching his catch? Or was he stalked and killed by a person, or persons, who knew him? Experts now believe that the mystery may hinge on a bizarre detail of the crime scene. The shaft of the fatal arrow was nowhere to be found. Someone must have pulled it out, leaving behind the stone arrowhead lodged in his body.

"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.

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