A chilling tale;Sciencetechnology

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
His body lay trapped under the snow for 5,000 years - but who was the iceman? John Stringer uncovers a mystery guaranteed to make your blood run cold.

It was in 1991 that some German hikers, climbing 3,000ft up in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, came upon the frozen body of a Neolithic man in the ice. He and his belongings had been there for 5,000 years.

The hikers - in their sophisticated climbing gear - represented the height of modern technology. The mummy, too, represented the height of technology from his age: a time without government, writing or law, but a time when craftspeople could work natural materials with a great accuracy and understanding of their properties.

When the iceman was alive, he had been part of a tribal society. There were no cities or towns; the population was tiny and thinly spread. People harvested corn and farmed cattle. They could smelt copper but they could not yet make bronze, its harder derivative.

The iceman had set out on a journey that he only completed 5,000 years later when his body was transferred to the natural history museum in Bolzano, capital of the Italian province of South Tyrol. At first, he was thought to be one of the 200 or so people who die on Alpine expeditions each year. As a result, his body initially received rough treatment; a hydraulic chisel was used to cut him from the ice and his possessions were trampled on.

It was only after he had been transported to a local mortuary that an archaeologist was called in to explain the strange stone and copper implements he had been carrying.

Konrad Spindler instantly identified the iceman as coming from the Neolithic period - a naturally mummified, perfectly preserved time capsule and "the archaeological find of the century".

Around the iceman were his clothes - leggings; a loincloth; a fur jerkin and a conical hat that had fallen from his head as he lay down for the last time. The clothes and his belongings had been left in the ice in the effort to recover his body. Now they were carefully freed from the 5,000-year grip of the glacier.

The iceman was dressed in furs worn under a woven grass cloak, the grass arranged like tiles on a roof to resist rain or snow, the furs underneath designed to trap his body heat and insulate him from the cold. This was the equivalent of a rain-proof cagoul over a thick fleece. He was wearing fur leggings, like those worn for centuries by Native Americans, and shoes made from leather lined with grass. Around his waist was a belt with a pouch, not unlike a modern bum-bag. It contained a fungus that could be used as a tinder for lighting fires, and a birch-bark container with the embers of a recent fire inside, insulated by maple leaves.

Among his tools were an awl (for punching holes in leather) made from bone, stone drills and scrapers, and a lime-wood-and-antler tool for fine stone sharpening. His axe had a copper blade that had been cast and hammered, and it was fixed to the yew handle with great precision, making full use of the shaft's mechanical advantage as a lever.

The iceman's bow was made from yew wood, still used today for sporting bows, and the 14 arrows in his quiver were made from the long, straight branches of the wayfaring-tree. He had a flint knife, its blade bound to the handle with animal sinew and its sharp edge protected by a fibrous pouch. The iceman carried spare parts and a mending kit in a backpack made from hazel twigs and larch wood planks bound together with grass string.

His diet would have consisted of fruit and vegetables, with sheep and goat meat, and his water sources would have been the rivers Rhine and Danube. Even then they were polluted with parasitic organisms such as E.coli. But infectious diseases were not so easily transmitted because the population was so small and people had less contact with their neighbours. He even carried a first-aid kit, which included a birch fungus with antibiotic properties that he could put on flesh wounds to help them heal.

The iceman had a strong physique, although his body was showing signs of wear caused by his harsh life. He showed evidence of broken ribs, his joints had mild arthritis and his teeth were ground down by his hard diet. He had, however, no trace of tooth decay - he had never known refined sugar and milled flour.

He was well-equipped to survive for several months away from regular supplies, and his hunting weapons would have provided additional meat, and defended him against animals and other humans.

His clothing was ideal for survival, even in the mountain frosts, so why did the iceman die where he did? Perhaps he fell asleep while tending animals, or while gathering materials for new bows and arrows. He may even have been crossing the Alps to trade with other tribes.

There is a more sinister explanation for his death, however. He could have been a victim of a wholesale massacre, similar to the modern "ethnic cleansing" that has been seen in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In a nearby Neolithic village, yet to be excavated, 34 skeletons have been found in a pit only three meters long and one-and-a-half meters wide. They appear to have been murdered - possibly executed - by stone axes and cudgels. There were no grave goods and no skeletons of babies, suggesting that the murderers simply slaughtered the village population, taking all their belongings and any children young enough to be brought up as their own, so adding new blood to their community. They could even have tossed the dead into a shallow pit and simply cleared the village for their own use.

Perhaps the iceman's village met a similar fate. As he fled, possibly wounded, he was overcome by bad weather conditions and found a niche in a rock for shelter. He would have known that to fall asleep was to invite death. He rested his bow and quiver of arrows against the rocks, exactly as they were found, and fought sleep. At some point he lost the battle. His cap fell from his head and he slipped to a painless end. Snow covered him, and slowly turned to ice. Locked in the glacier, the iceman waited to be found 5,000 years later.

Source: The Man in the Ice by Konrad Spindler (Weidenfield-Nicholson pound;18.99Phoenix pound;7.99)

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