Who Was Ötzi the Iceman?

Ötzi the Iceman is the oldest mummy ever found. Learn what scientists now know about the famous ancient human.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Apr 12, 2023 6:00 PMApr 18, 2023 7:06 PM
Reproduction of Oetzi the Similaun Man in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano


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In 1991, two German tourists were hiking in the Ötztal Alps — a mountain range shared by Austria and Italy — when they stumbled upon the frozen remains of a dead man. The ice preserved the man so well that his body, clothes and tools never decomposed.

Scientists dubbed him Ötzi the Iceman and began studying the naturally-preserved mummy. They’ve determined he lived more than 5,000 years ago, which makes Ötzi the Iceman the oldest mummy ever found.

Researchers are still studying the mountain mummy, and Ötzi the Iceman continues to unlock answers about what daily life was like thousands of years ago. 

How Old Is Ötzi the Iceman?

The hikers who found Ötzi the Iceman contacted authorities immediately. Austrian police took note of his grass overcoat — a garment typically worn by locals up until the late nineteenth century. They assumed Ötzi the Iceman died sometime in the past two centuries.

But when scientists began studying the mummy, they realized he was much older than first thought. Ötzi the Iceman lived around 5,300 years ago during the Neolithic Copper Age.

In a 2003 study in Science, an international team of scientists revealed how they analyzed his teeth and bones and determined he lived his entire life in a 60-kilometer range in the Alps. 

How Old Was Otzi When He Died?

Scientists conducted whole-genome sequencing on Ötzi the Iceman and published their results in a 2012 study in Nature. 

Ötzi the Iceman likely had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant and was predisposed to coronary heart disease. He had type O blood and was likely between 40 and 50 years old when he died. 

How Was Ötzi the Iceman’s Health?

Scientists now know a lot about his health at the time of his passing because his organs were in good condition. Scientists found he has blackened lungs. They think that may be due to a lifetime of warming next to open fires.

In his life, Ötzi the Iceman suffered eight broken ribs. Several were healed at the time of his death, but others were still healing. He also had a lot of health problems. His tooth enamel had decayed, and he had gum disease.

He had a parasitic roundworm in his intestines, gallstones and degenerative joint disease in his hip. The cartilage had worn in his cervical and lumbar spine, and he had atherosclerosis, a plaque buildup in his artery walls.

How Did Ötzi the Iceman Die?

Scientists disagree on how Ötzi the Iceman died. He had two fresh wounds on his body, and some researchers say he was murdered. Others believe he was caught in a snowstorm and died of exposure.

Based on an analysis of his stomach contents, researchers do have an understanding of how Ötzi the Iceman spent his last days. Before he died, he moved from higher up in the Alps to a lower altitude. He returned to the glacier altitude. The area the hikers discovered him was once a mountain pass.  

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

Scientists believe Ötzi the Iceman, was attacked twice when he went up and down the mountains. He had a stabbing wound in his hand and then, later, a laceration by his collarbone that could have fatally pierced his left subclavian artery.  

Who Was the Iceman in Real Life?

Before Ötzi the Iceman was discovered, researchers could only guess what people wore around 3300 B.C. because organic materials decompose. The ice preserved Ötzi the Iceman’s clothes, and scientists were able to analyze the materials and determine their origin.

In a 2010 study in CHIMIA, a team of scientists analyzed the proteins in the hairs on his clothing and compared them with living animals. When he died, Ötzi the Iceman wore clothing made from several types of animal hide. He wore a fur cape made of bear hide, leggings from a sheep and the upper leather of his moccasins came from cattle.

On further analysis, they found that Ötzi the Iceman’s clothing had gone through a tanning process using animal fats. This prompted researchers to suggest Ötzi the Iceman was a member of a more developed society of farmers and ranchers, not hunters or nomads.

His shoes were stuffed with grass, likely to add more warmth. He also had an exterior coat made from woven grass. Based on these clothes, researchers believe he was likely a farmer or shepherd, not someone of elite status.

(Credit: Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock)

Although Ötzi the Iceman likely wasn’t in the upper echelon, an analysis of his stomach contents revealed he was well-fed and mainly ate meat and vegetables. 

Ötzi the Iceman Tattoos

Ötzi the Iceman got quite a bit of ink during his lifetime and is currently considered the oldest tattooed mummy. He has 61 tattoos concentrated on 19 areas of his body. Although the tattoos might have had symbolic or spiritual meaning, scientists believe his tattoos were medicinal and meant for preventive or curative purposes.

For example, he has bluish-black lines drawn in parallels in the lumbar region. Imaging tests revealed he had worn cartilage in his lumbar spine, and the tattoos might have responded to pain or stiffness.

Several of his tattoos were darker than others, which implies he might have been intentionally inked in the same spot on multiple occasions.

The tattoos have prompted some researchers to suggest that ancient Europeans living in the Alps also practiced a form of acupuncture.

Scientists continue to study Ötzi the Iceman, his tattoos, clothing and tools. Although not all the mysteries about his life will be solved, many questions researchers had about life in the Copper Age have been answered.

Read More: Finding Meaning Behind 5,300-Year-Old Ötzi the Iceman's 61 Tattoos

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