Tattoos today are more a fashion statement. In fact, in some cases, they signify rebellion to tradition in modern society. But that may not have always been true. Tattoos, it seems, may have been used to help in alleviating some illness or health issue in prehistoric times. Interestingly, an Iceman who lived 5300 years ago knew enough of his biology to know the accupunture points and meridians back then! Isn’t it surprising?
“The earliest evidence we have of tattoos, not surprisingly, is cosmetic,” says Lars Krutak. Tattooed on the upper lip of a 7,000-year-old mummy from the Chinchorro culture of northern Chile and southern Peru is a thin pencil mustache. “But, the second oldest we have is medicinal,” he adds.
Krutak, sitting at his desk in the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History, is referring to Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old mummified “Iceman,” so named by researchers because he was discovered in the Ötztal Alps on the Italy-Austria border in September 1991. The preserved body has a total of 57 tattoos—short lines etched in groups on his lower back and ankles, a cross behind his right knee and two rings around his left wrist.
“Incredibly, approximately 80 percent of these tattoos overlap with classical Chinese acupuncture points utilized to treat rheumatism, a medical condition that plagued the Iceman. Other tattoos were found to be located on or near acupuncture meridians [pathways that connect internal organs with specific points located on the skin] that may have had the purpose of relieving other ailments, like gastro-intestinal problems,” writes Krutak in his latest book, Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification, published this fall. The Iceman had a whipworm infection, researchers discovered in 2001.
His contribution to our knowledge of Tattoos and their usage apart, the Iceman is also a celebrity in his own right – 5300 years after his rather icey death. Women want to have babies with him and scientists want opportunities to study him. (The Iceman’s Secrets – also reproduced below this post)
So are Tattoos useful in improving some health issues? Lars Krutak tried to look into that with the help ofColin Dale and an acupuncturist.
Colin Dale, a tattooist in Copenhagen, Denmark, has mastered several traditional forms of tattooing. He has personally sewn all of Krutak’s skin-stitches and shares the anthropologist’s interest in medicinal tattoos. Last year, in fact, for the 20th anniversary of the Iceman’s discovery, Dale conducted a small test, tattooing David Schütze, a client plagued by asthma, rheumatism in several of his joints, headaches, tinnitus in his ear and a loud snoring habit, with marks similar to Ötzi’s and in many of the same spots. Dale had an acupuncturist on hand to recommend locations that aligned with certain acupuncture points. After three months time, Schütze reported that just about all of his pains and symptoms had noticeably eased, if not completely disappeared. By a year, some had returned, but nowhere near the original intensity. The acupuncturist, Irg Bernhardt, compared the results of the one tattooing session to 10 to 15 acupuncture treatments. “In my estimation, this project shows that tattooing of acupuncture points [produces] a sustained therapeutic effect,” said Bernhardt in Spiritual Skin. “And not just for a short period of time, since it actually seems to work for the long term.”
Very interesting! So our Ice man knew a lot. More than we would ordinarily credit him for.
Time – The weekly Newsmagazine – 1992
Oct. 26, 1992 The Iceman’s Secrets
COVER STORIES, Page 62
The discovery of a frozen 5,300-year-old wanderer – the world’s most ancient intact human – stirs passion and controversy and opens a window on life in the Stone Age.
By LEON JAROFF – With reporting by William Rademaekers/Innsbruck and Rhea Schoenthal/Bonn
Women have inquired about the possibility of having his baby. Scientists the world over plead for a chance to examine him. Museums compete for bits of his clothing and tools. Nations and provinces bicker over who has custody rights, while anthropologists struggle to discern how he lived and what other ancient secrets he is destined to reveal.
Through it all, the object of this desire and celebrity has remained mute, though his very appearance on the scene has spoken volumes. He is known as the Iceman, a Stone Age wanderer found one year ago remarkably preserved in the melting Similaun glacier high in the Alps. His discovery has already upset some long-held notions about the late Stone Age, chilled relations between Austria and Italy – near whose border he was found – and stimulated tourism and commerce. His age, established by radiocarbon dating is approximately 5,300 years, makes him by far the most ancient human being ever found virtually intact. (Some Egyptian mummies are older, but had their brain and vital organs removed before interment.)
“He is a remarkable specimen,” says Werner Platzer, an anatomist at Austria’s University of Innsbruck. “Scientists have never before had an opportunity to examine such an ancient body.” But the Iceman has provided posterity with more than just his body; he literally died with his boots on. His glacial grave has yielded pieces of his clothing, weaponry and other equipment. While most remains of ancient humans are found surrounded by funerary objects (if anything at all), the Iceman “was snatched from life completely outfitted with the implements of everyday existence!” exclaims Markus Egg, the German archaeologist who is overseeing the delicate process of restoring the Iceman’s belongings. In effect, the find brings the remote Neolithic period vividly to life, says prehistorian Lawrence Barfield of England’s University of Birmingham. “It is as though you are walking around a museum looking at pottery and flint, then turn a corner and find a real person.”
Examining that person and his implements, scientists have gained new insight into late Stone Age society. They’ve been stunned by the sophisticated design of his arrows, which reflect a basic grasp of ballistics, and the ingenuity of his clothing. Even more amazing is the evidence that Neolithic people had discovered the antibiotic properties of plants. Among other surprises, the Iceman has shown irrefutably that human haircuts and tattoos have been in vogue a good deal longer than anyone suspected. Researchers have also begun to reconstruct the extraordinary coincidences of weather and geography that led to the Iceman’s death, his long interment and his startling re-emergence 53 centuries later.
“I thought at first it was a doll’s head,” says Helmut Simon, the German tourist who spotted the Iceman on Sept. 19, 1991, while on an Alpine walking trip with his wife. On closer inspection, however, they realized that the head and shoulders protruding from the Similaun glacier were human, and seeing a hole in the back of the skull, suspected foul play. Hurrying to a hikers’ shelter to report their find, they set in motion a series of blunders that nearly deprived the world of a priceless treasure.
Uncertain about who had jurisdiction, Markus Pirpamer, owner of the shelter, called police on both sides of the border. The Italian carabinieri, believing the body was that of an ill-fated climber, showed no interest. Their Austrian counterparts, who had already pulled eight corpses out of glaciers that summer, said they would investigate by the next afternoon. Pirpamer decided the next morning to go see for himself, and was flabbergasted: “I had seen bodies come out of the glacier,” he recalls, “but this was nothing like them. Bodies trapped in the glacier are white and waxy and usually chewed up by the ice. This one was brown and dried out. I could tell that it was really old.”
Later that day, an Austrian policeman arrived by helicopter and attempted to free the body with a jackhammer. The brute-force tool chewed up the Iceman’s garments and ripped through his left hip, exposing the bone. Fortunately, the officer ran out of compressed air to power the jackhammer before he could do further damage. His superiors decided to wait until the following week to resume the recovery; the helicopter, they explained, was needed for more important things.
Word of the find spread, and over the weekend about two dozen curiosity seekers trudged to the site. Some collected fragments of garments and tools as souvenirs, and one used a pickax to free the body from the melting ice. Overnight, however, the temperature dropped. By the time Innsbruck forensics expert Dr. Rainer Henn arrived to investigate the death, on Monday, Sept. 23, the body was again locked in ice. Having neglected to bring tools, Henn and his team resorted to hacking it out with a borrowed ice pickax and ski pole, largely destroying the archaeological value of the site.
The mistreated corpse, clothed from the waist down when discovered, was now stark naked except for remnants of a boot dangling from his right foot, and bore the marks of his crude recovery. He also had been castrated; it turned out that his penis and most of his scrotum were missing, perhaps accidentally broken off during his recovery and taken by a visitor. Flown out by helicopter and transferred to a hearse, the Iceman and his possessions were transported to Innsbruck. There, one final indignity awaited the body. It became the centerpiece of a press conference in the local morgue. While the Iceman and his tattered belongings lay on a dissecting table under blazing klieg lights, reporters and other hangers-on joked, smoked and even touched the body. Not until lat afternoon did someone notice a fungus spreading on the Iceman’s skin.
It was only then, after five days of heavy-handed mistreatment, that the Iceman was given professional succor. Arriving at the morgue, Konrad Spindler, head of Innsbruck’s Institute for Prehistory, was stunned, immediately realizing the significance of the shriveled body. “I thought this was perhaps what my colleague Howard Carter experienced when he opened the tomb of Tutankhamen and gazed into the face of the Pharaoh.”
Spindler could see that the body had been naturally mummified – quickly de hydrated by icy winds or perhaps by foehn, the warm, dry North African wind that sweeps across the Alps during winter. To prevent further damage, his team bathed the body in fungicide, wrapped it in a sterilized plastic sheet, covered it with chipped ice and moved it to a refrigerated room at the university. There, except for 30-minute intervals when it is removed for CAT scans and other scientific tests, the Iceman has been stored ever since at 98% humidity and -6 degrees C (21.2 degrees F), the glacial temperature he had grown accustomed to over more that 5,000 years.
A Seasoned Outdoorsman
A broad portrait of the Iceman and his times is gradually emerging from the tests and observations. He was a fit man, between 25 and 35, about 1.6 m (5 ft. 2 in.) tall – which was short even in his day – and weighed around 50 kg (110 lbs.). Though his nose had been crushed and his upper lip folded by the weight of ice, it is clear that he had well-formed facial features that would not draw stares from contemporary Tyroleans. Says South Tyrolean archaeologist Hans Not Durfter: “He looks like one of our well-tanned ancestors.”
An examination of his body revealed no sign of disease and no wounds beyond those that were inflicted during his exhumation. But scientists are still pondering the reason for the bluish tinge of his teeth, which were well worn, probably from a diet of milled grain products.
Though the mummified body was completely hairless, investigators have plucked about 1,000 curly brownish-black hairs from the recovered shreds of clothing. Those that came from the Iceman’s head were only 9 cm (3 ½ in.) long – evidence that humans had been cutting their hair far earlier than anthropologists had believed. More mysterious were the well-defined tattoos: groups of blue parallel lines on the Iceman’s lower spine, a cross behind the left knee and stripes on the right ankle. “Since all these tattoos were covered by clothing,” says Spindler, “they must have had an inner meaning for the man and not have had the function of identification for other tribes.” Some scientists suggest that the designs might have been used to mark the passage from youth to manhood. One fact is certain: until this discovery, it was thought that tattooing originated 2,500 years later.
The Iceman was well prepared for the Alpine chill. His basic garment was an unlined fur robe made of patches of deer, chamois and ibex skin. Though badly repaired at many points, the robe had been cleverly whipstitched together with threads of sinew or plant fiber, in what appears to be a mosaic-like pattern, belying the popular images of cavemen in crude skins. “The person who made the clothes initially was obviously skilled. This indicates that the Iceman was in some way integrated into a community,” says prehistorian Egg, who is restoring the clothes at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany. As for the repairs, made with grass thread, Egg says, “We assume he did them himself in the wilderness.” Shredded during the Iceman’s recovery, the garment arrived at Mainz in nearly a hundred pieces and with so many bits missing that Egg has doubts about ever fully determining the fashion of the times.
For further protection, the Iceman wore a woven grass cape over the garment similar to those used by Tyrolean shepherds as late as the early part of this century. His well-worn size-6 shoes were made of leather and stuffed with grass for warmth. Last month an Italian expedition turned up an additional furry piece of the Iceman’s wardrobe, probably a cap.
The Iceman’s equipment revealed an unexpected degree of sophistication. His copper ax was initially mistaken by Spindler as evidence that the find dated from the Bronze rather than the Neolithic Age. But the blade turned out to be nearly pure copper, not bronze.
To archaeologists, the Iceman’s fur quiver is an even rarer prize. “It is the only quiver from the Neolithic period found in the whole world,” Egg marvels. Its cargo of feathered arrows marks another first. Carved from viburnum and dogwood branches, a dozen of them were unfinished. But two were primed for shooting – with flint points and feathers. The feathers had been affixed with a resin-like glue at an angle that would cause spin in flight and help maintain a true course. “It is significant that ballistic principles were known and applied,” says Notdurfter. The quiver also held an untreated sinew that could be made into a bowstring; a ball of fibrous cord; the thorn of a deer’s antler, which could be used to skin an animal; and four antler tips, tied together with grass.
The bow, which had not yet been notched for a bowstring, is made of yew, which Egg explains is “the best wood in Central Europe for bowmaking and the wood the famous English longbows – like Robin Hood’s – were made of.” Yew is relatively rare in the Alps, but the Iceman had searched out “the best material.”
The Neolithic climber was also armed with a tiny flint dagger with a wooden handle; a net of grass, which possibly served as a carrying bag; and a pencil-sized stone-and-linden tool that was probably used to sharpen arrowheads and blades. Two birchbark canisters may have been used to carry the embers from a fire, Egg speculates. The Iceman apparently toted much of his gear in a primitive rucksack with a U-shaped wooden frame.
Homo tyrolensis, as some scientists have dubbed him, also had a leather pouch resembling a small version of the “fanny packs” worn by tourists today. Inside he carried a sharpened piece of bone, probably used to make sewing holes in leather, and a flint-stone drill and blade. A sloeberry, probably his snack food, was found at the site, along with two mushrooms strung on a knotted leather cord. The mushrooms have infection-fighting properties and may have been part of the world’s oldest-known first-aid kit. The only decorative item, possibly a talisman, was a small, doughnut-shaped stone disk, with a tassel of string.
The Iceman’s Final Hours
Prepared as he was for an Alpine outing, how did the Iceman perish? And what was he doing so high in the mountains? To Egg, the evidence suggests that the iceman could have been a shepherd, part of a group tending sheep or cattle. Ekkehard Dreiseitel, a University of Innsbruck climatologist, agrees. “We know the weather 5,000 years ago was somewhat warmer. The pasturage in the high Alps [above the tree line] would have been tempting in the summer, since it requires no clearing of the forest.” Because the ax resembles those found in Stone Age settlements near Brescia, Italy, Egg suggests that the Iceman and fellow shepherds had worked their way through the Alpine foothills from the south, grazing their flocks. It is also possible that he was seeking flint in the highlands.
At some point, Egg says, the Iceman could have left his group to search for yew to replace a broken bow or to hunt for food. His route may have taken him over the Alpine crest and down to the tree line on the other side. There he cut himself a new bow, fetched more arrow wood, and prepared to rejoin his friends.
It was late summer or autumn – evidenced by the sloeberry, which was then in season – and a sudden storm and drop in temperature while the Iceman was crossing the crest may have forced him to take refuge in a basin 3m to 5m (10 ft. to 16 ft.) deep, ridged on both sides. There he died. Writing in last week’s issue of Science, a team of experts suggested that the Iceman “was in a state of exhaustion perhaps as a consequence of adverse weather conditions. He therefore may have lain down… fallen asleep and frozen to death.”
While the Iceman lay exposed, a bird might have torn the small hole found on the back of his head, but a heavy snowfall soon covered the body, protecting it from further depredation. Soon the glacier moved in, flowing over the basin. “We know that if he had been trapped in the glacier,” says glaciologist Gerhard Markl, “the body and the implements would have been ground up beyond recognition. When we recover bodies from a glacier, we often find a leg here, an arm there.”
Safely tucked away in a deep “pool” in the glacial stream, protected from currents and preserved by the frigid -6 degrees C temperature, the Iceman lay undisturbed for more than 53 centuries. And centuries more might have passed before he was discovered were it not for a foehn that last year delivered tons of North African desert sand to the Alpine ridges. “This is a common phenomenon,” explains climatologist Dreiseitel, “but in 1991 it coincided with a winter that produced little snow, and the coating of sand increased the rate of melt on the high peaks.” All over the Alps that summer, glaciers retreated – including Similaun. Even then, it was only by chance that the world learned of the Iceman. “By the end of September,” says Spindler, “he would have been buried under a half-meter of snow. Most probably, he would have remained in his glacial grave for at least another hundred years.”
The Custody Conundrum
On Oct. 2, 1991, an Austro-Italian surveying team determined that the find was 92.6 m (101 yds.) inside Italian soil, namely the autonomous region of South Tyrol. The result has been a custody battle every bit as absurd as the bungled recovery effort. “Rome was ready to demand the body back immediately,” explains a South Tyrolean scientist. It was then that we in South Tyrol pointed out that this province has authority over its own culture and patrimony.” Innsbruck, of course, wanted to keep the celebrated corpse.
Last February a deal was struck requiring the University of Innsbruck to return the Iceman to South Tyrol no later than Sept. 19, 1994 – three years from the discovery date. In an act of goodwill, the Innsbruck team last month marked the first anniversary of the discovery with a motorcade that carried the first edition of Der Mann im Eis, a 464-page scientific tome, to Bolzano, South Tyrol’s capital.
With less than two years to go, Innsbruck scientists are hoping to conduct as much research as possible, while struggling with the costs of the Iceman’s upkeep — $10,000 a month. To help cover these expenses, they are charging high fees for photo opportunities and using profits from book sales and lecture tours. Rome hasn’t made the research effort any easier. Authorities there, furious over the Iceman’s mismanaged recovery, declared that the mummy is the archaeological equivalent of “a Leonardo” and warned that it should not be damaged “in any way.” When Innsbruck sent out the snippets of flesh “no larger than a sweetening tablet” for carbon dating by experts at Oxford and in Zurich, the Italian government threatened legal action.
The bickering has seriously delayed examination of the Iceman’s internal organs and analysis of his DNA, tests that could shed light on his diet, immune system and cause of death, and even help identify his closest living descendants. Innsbruck University anatomist Werner Platzer feels frustrated and bewildered: “The Italian ministry has told us that we are not allowed to destroy a bit of the body,” he complains. On the other hand, “they say that if no research is carried out, the body must go to Rome for research purposes.” As head of the anatomical-research project, Platzer has decided to ignore Rome’s objection. This month he will begin doling out minuscule bits of the Iceman for analysis by experts in many nations. “This find is for scientists all over the world,” he argues. “It is ridiculous to say this is an Italian or an Austrian matter.”
The Iceman’s appeal is universal. Austrians have fondly nicknamed him “Oetzi” (after the Oetztaler Alps). Thousands of people worldwide have written to express their interest or profess kinship. Some claim to have communicated with him, while several women, unaware of the Iceman’s castration, have volunteered to be impregnated with his sperm. In South Tyrol, a small tourist industry, replete with T-shirts, pamphlets and escorted hikes to the recovery site, is already flourishing. And proud provincial officials are planning to build a museum around the Iceman and display him in some sort of refrigerated showcase.
Scientists are appalled. An Iceman museum in picturesque South Tyrol would doubtless be a hit, but most experts believe it would be a mistake to display anything but a replica of the mummy. Displaying the body, Platzer says, would be undignified, and “we don’t think it could tolerate those conditions.” In fact, the Iceman’s present custodians are worried that even their best efforts cannot indefinitely preserve the world’s most extraordinary time traveler. Full-scale research had better proceed apace. What a sad irony it would be if, after waiting more that 53 centuries to come to light, the Iceman and his ancient secrets would be lost to human folly and politics.