Ötzi, the Copper Age man found frozen in the Alps in 1991, wasn't having a great time of it even before the arrow wound that caused his death. His pain, however, has proven a boon for scientists mapping recent human migrations, and studying some of the less desirable microbes that came along for the ride.
The discovery of Ötzi has provided us with unmatched insight into European life 5,300 years ago. We don't know quite how typical this individual was, but he has given us evidence of everything from the bow and arrows used for hunting, to his impressive set of tattoos.
Last year, DNA for the oral pathogen Treponema denticola, responsible for gum disease, was found in Ötzi's hipbone, of all places. If an infection of the mouth was not bad enough, a new study in Science has revealed that the Iceman also carried Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes stomach ulcers, and sometimes cancers.
Not everyone infected with H. pylori gets ulcers – today half the world's population have the bacterium, but only a tenth of these have ulcers. Nevertheless, paleopathologist Dr. Albert Zink of the European Academy in Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) found Ötzi's immune system had reacted to the bacterium.
"Whether Ötzi suffered from stomach problems cannot be said with any degree of certainty," Zink said in a statement. “Because his stomach tissue has not survived and it is in this tissue that such diseases can be discerned first. Nonetheless, the preconditions for such a disease did in fact exist in Ötzi."
A reconstruction of what Ötzi is thought to have looked like when alive. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Foto Ochsenreiter
Aside from the achievement of extracting H. pylori DNA from a body whose stomach tissue is long gone, the discovery is significant for the strain of the bacterium infecting Ötzi. "We had assumed that we would find the same strain of Helicobacter in Ötzi as is found in Europeans today," coauthor Professor Thomas Rattei of the University of Vienna said. "It turned out to be a strain that is mainly observed in Central and South Asia today."
The finding of the oldest H. pylori sequenced will change our understanding of migrations into Europe. It is thought that there were initially two strains of the bacterium, from Africa and Asia respectively, and that the modern European version is a recombination of the two, thought to have arrived with the first farmers in the region around 9,000 years ago. Yet Ötzi shows little sign of the African version.
"The recombination of the two types of Helicobacter may have only occurred at some point after Ötzi's era, and this shows that the history of settlements in Europe is much more complex than previously assumed," said Dr. Frank Maixner of EURAC. At a press conference researchers acknowledged they don't know when or how the African strain of H. pylori reached Europe, but said it requires a large scale migration from north-east Africa some time after Ötzi's era.
The team are hoping to repeat their success with mummies from South America and Asia, where cold conditions may have preserved their stomach contents.