“The Man in the Ice”

Most of us who hunt for wild meat or pick wild berries and mushrooms, and take profound pleasure from the hunter-gatherer act, recognize that there is an ancestral or antediluvian connection. Your caveman lineage is likely to take on a new focus if you spend some time with a book titled “The Man in the Ice” by Konrad Spindler. Spindler is an Austrian archaeologist.

Spindler is one of the scientists who was intimately involved in the preservation and study of the ice-preserved corpse of the Neolithic man discovered in a melted glacier in the Austrian Alps in 1991. Carbon-14 dating established that the middle-aged mountaineer was 5,300 years old at the time of his death!

During the research, the ice man took on a nickname: Otzi. Spindler’s detailed account is fascinating, not only for its insights into what life may have been like in the Neolithic era, but for what it demonstrates about the astonishing potential of forensic science to unravel puzzles that may seem at first to be utterly inscrutable.

Otzi, in all probability, was on the lam, fleeing from danger and violence encountered at his village in the lowlands. (To this day, the Alps, and the unpredictable weather there, claim close to 200 mountaineers a year.) The forensic evidence suggests that Otzi, with some broken ribs, was in pain. He had lost his bow and was in the process of fashioning a new one when sleep overtook him after dining on some Ibex meat. He never woke up, apparently death by freezing.

The ice man’s half-finished bow was made from yew wood, which was the bow wood of choice in that age. Yew has no resin and is tough, but elastic and does not splinter. The handle of Otzi’s ax, which, surprisingly, had a copper blade, was also fashioned from yew. Spindler writes, “As for the wooden objects (in the ice man’s possession), the variety of tree species represented is astonishing.” He also explains that the chosen raw material was a matter of survival for Neolithic man and thus his knowledge about the nuances of best-suited tree species surpassed modern man’s.

Found near Otzi’s incredibly preserved corpse were some other interesting items. A birch bark container held cold embers that had been a method to transport his campfire from site to site. The ice man wore a hand-fashioned belly pouch that contained flint and other fire-starting material. There also was a leather quiver of arrows and a backpack with a leather pannier.

Here is a puzzle for you. Around Otzi’s wrist was a leather thing containing dried mushrooms. Was this a decorative device? Did the Alps man enjoy some sauteed Portobellos with his Ibex loins?

None of the above, at least according to Spindler. He theorizes that this was Otzi’s medication. The fungi were known to have been used as an antibiotic by people of the Stone Age.

Otzi was well clothed in leather leggings, leather shoes filled with straw, a much more elaborate loin cloth than Tarzan wore and a heavy cloak made from woven straw and other natural fibers.

The ice man was also a big fan of tattoos, including a cruciform tattoo on the inside of his right knee. He still had most of his teeth, though, as you might expect, his teeth were ground down because of his diet.

“The Man in the Ice,” by Conrad Spindler, is published by Harmony Books of New York. Included in the book are some remarkable color photos. It provides an informative and intriguing glimpse at one of our hunter-gather ancestors and a compelling testimony to the marvelous strides of forensic science.

V. Paul Reynolds

Columnist at Ellsworth American
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

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