Frozen in, on, and around Ötzi the Iceman were at least 75 different types of mosses and liverworts, or bryophytes, allowing scientists to piece together the final days of one of the world’s most famous mummies.
The frozen, mummified body of a man melting out of the ice first made headlines in 1991, bringing with it a cult-like following of researchers and history buffs alike. Dubbed Ötzi, the iceman is the world’s oldest glacial mummy and is arguably the world’s most studied human corpse. (Scientists have even attempted to recreate his voice and have printed 3D replicas of his corpse.) Most of what we know about Ötzi is contested across the academic community. Radiocarbon dating suggests he lived 5,300 years ago and was a loner cut off from his usual trade networks. He was found preserved, albeit shriveled up, in suitable clothing and gear for his frigid environment, including a copper headed ax, a full set of archery equipment, and a fire-making kit. We also know that he had eaten dried game meat and ferns just before he was shot with an arrow and brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances.
But where Ötzi came from and where he was going remains a mystery. Researchers found thousands of preserved bryophyte fragments belonging to at least 75 species – yet the region is only home to about 23 species.
“Most members of the public are unlikely to be knowledgeable about bryophytes. However, no fewer than 75 species of these important investigative clues were found when the Iceman was removed from the ice,” said researcher James Dickson, from the University of Glasgow, in a statement.
“They were recovered as mostly small scraps from the ice around him, from his clothes and gear, and even from his alimentary tract. Those findings prompted the questions: Where did the fragments come from? How precisely did they get there? How do they help our understanding of the Iceman?"
Less than one-third of the identified bryophytes appear to be native to the region, note the researchers. The rest were either transported by Ötzi (via his gut or on his clothing) deliberately and inadvertently during is “last, fatal journey” or by large traveling herbivores whose poop froze alongside the iceman. By analyzing these bryophyte species, researchers were able to reconstruct the path that Ötzi took to his final resting place, confirming previous findings that suggested he walked through the lower Schnalstal Valley.
“The mosses Neckera complanata and several other ecologically similar species, as well as a species of Sphagnum (bogmoss), strongly support the claim that the Iceman, took northwards up Schnalstal, South Tyrol, as the route of the last journey,” wrote the authors in PLOS ONE, adding that a different species of bog moss taken from his colon confirms this conclusion.