Ötzi the Iceman didn’t have the easiest of lives. Some 5,300 years ago, this tattooed hunter trampled the harsh mountains of the eastern Alps near the Italian-Austrian border with a dodgy heart and gut parasites, only to eventually die after being shot with an arrow and brutally attacked by a mysterious enemy. As if things could get worse, his body then became trapped in glacier ice, preserving his grim fate for the world to see over the coming thousands of years.
However, it wasn’t all bad, at least his last meal was a good one. A recent analysis of the glacier mummy’s stomach contents has revealed that he died with a belly full of fresh or dried game meat from ibex and red deer, einkorn wheat, and traces of toxic bracken ferns.
Not only is this a particularly cool insight into one of the world's best-preserved glacier mummies, it's also providing unprecedented information about the diet and lifestyle of Copper Age Europeans.
“Ötzi seems to have been aware of the fact that fats represent an excellent source of energy," Frank Maixner, a microbiologist at Eurac Research, said in a statement. "The high-Alpine region (3,210-meter [10,500-foot] altitude) where the Iceman lived and was found some 5,300 years after his death, presents a definite challenge for human physiology. It calls for an optimal supply of nutrients so as to avoid a sudden drop in energy.”
“The Iceman’s last meal was a balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids – perfectly suited to the demands of life in a high-Alpine region,” added Albert Zink, director of the Institute for Mummy Studies at Eurac Research.
As detailed in the journal Current Biology, researchers at the Eurac Research center in Italy examined his stomach for specific DNA, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that could indicate what went into his last meal. The analysis showed that the ibex meat in the Iceman’s stomach was remarkably well-preserved. The researchers were able to see the fibrous structure of the meat, suggesting it was maybe air-dried like jerky or, perhaps less likely, cooked at a low temperature of 60°C (140°F), cool enough to stop the muscle fibers from breaking down.
However, why did he eat toxic bracken? Well, Ötzi is no dummy. The researchers believe that there’s a chance he was actually using this mildly toxic plant as a remedy for his stomach troubles.
“Ötzi may have experienced stomach pains due to the parasites in his gut which have already been identified in previous studies, and had resorted to bracken as a remedy," added Zink. "It is also conceivable however that he had made use of the bracken leaves to wrap his food in and that traces of the plant inadvertently got into his food."