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A DNA Analysis Upends What We Thought Ötzi the Iceman Looked Like

With just a crown of hair and a new skin color, he would have looked like a whole new Ötzi Man.

By Matt Hrodey
Aug 23, 2023 5:00 PMAug 23, 2023 5:01 PM
An overhead photo of the Iceman Ötzi mummy lying on a white table
Otzi Man. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Eurac/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz)


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Ötzi the Iceman, the world’s oldest glacier mummy, was a short and slender man (an estimated 110 pounds) who had blackened lungs, presumably from sitting next to camp fires. His skin contained 61 bluish-black tattoos, which the artist may have intended as healing treatments.

Researchers have learned many other details of his life because of DNA analysis, including Ötzi’s skin color and ancestry. A new such study has found that Ötzi was much balder than initially believed and had darker skin.

What Did Scientists Learn About Ötzi the Iceman?

In 3,300 B.C., Ötzi died in a small hollow in the current-day Ötzal Alps near the Austrian-Italian border, and a glacier covered his body. He remained preserved there until a German tourist, Helmut Simon, stumbled across where the ice had melted and found the remains.

Ötzi hailed, the researchers found in the new paper, from a relatively isolated group of farming people and not, in part, from steppe herders. The paper says an often-cited 2012 analysis suffered from contamination by modern DNA and led to the mistaken belief that Ötzi had thick, full hair and had descended, in part, from Eastern European steppe herders.

This isn’t the first time new research has overturned old assumptions about Ötzi. In 2001, an X-ray scan discovered an arrowhead embedded in the man’s left shoulder – a likely cause of death. Until then, scientists had believed Ötzi died from exposure while crossing the mountains.

Read More: Tollund Man, Otzi the Iceman: What Their Last Meals Reveal

Old and New Iceman Assumptions

In 2012, researchers published the first genome of Ötzi and concluded that the ice man had light brown skin and not the mummy’s darker shade. That originated in the mummification process, scientists believed, but the new analysis says Ötzi’s skin truly was of a darker hue.

The researchers deduced the iceman’s skin color from 170 different genetic markers and found it to be far from the lighter shade often depicted in artistic renderings. When they compared Ötzi’s genome to those of other ancient Europeans, they found he had the darkest skin tone of all.

His genes also revealed a predisposition for obesity and type 2 diabetes, however, “These factors probably did not come into play thanks to his healthy lifestyle,” the statement says.

Read More: The Mummification Process: How Ancient Egyptians Preserved Bodies for the Afterlife

DNA of Ancient Farmers

The DNA of most present-day Europeans results from a mixture of hunter-gatherer ancestors, early farmers and steppe herders from Eastern Europe.

But Ötzi came from a more secluded farming group tied in some way to the migration of early farmers from Asia Minor to Europe about 8,000 years ago.

“We were very surprised to find no traces of Eastern European steppe herders in the most recent analysis of the iceman genome,” said Johannes Krause, head of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a statement. “The proportion of hunter-gatherer genes in Ötzi’s genome is also very low.”

Read More: This 2,300-Year-Old Mummy Has a Heart (and Tongue) of Gold

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