Published On: Mon, Jul 16th, 2018

A mummy’s final meal adds to an ancient mystery

HOW to prepare for a trip to the mountains concerned hikers five millennia ago as much as it does today. That is the conclusion of the latest study of the mummy dubbed “Ötzi the Iceman”, who perished 5,300 years ago in the Alps, near what is now the border between Austria and Italy. An analysis of the Iceman’s remains suggests that his meal before he set off on what was to turn out to be a fatal trip was high in protein and fat, and composed mainly of meat.

The Iceman’s remains were discovered in 1991. After a diplomatic tussle over which side of the border his resting place was, they ended up in a museum in Bolzano, Italy. Subsequent analysis told a tantalising tale. An initial investigation suggested he had died of exposure during a winter storm. Later CT scans, however, revealed an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder. This had severed a vital artery. Closer examination showed a deep cut to his right hand, suggesting that he had recently been in a fight. That led to imaginative stories about a fugitive fleeing a lynch mob.

If so, he was a well-prepared fugitive. Frank Maixner and Albert Zink, two researchers at the Institute for Mummy Studies, in Bolzano, have just published details of his stomach contents in Current Biology. They speak of someone who had had enough time to eat a nourishing meal before departing.

A unique specimen such as the Iceman is not cut open lightly. But Dr Maixner and Dr Zink knew, from scans, that his stomach was full when he died and therefore that useful information could be gleaned from doing so. Initial examination under a microscope of the sample taken revealed numerous chunks of meat and animal fat jumbled up in a mixture of plant fragments. To identify which species these materials had come from, the two researchers carried out a chemical analysis.

This revealed phytanic acid (frequently found in the fat and milk of ruminants), azelaic acid (common in wholegrain cereals) and gamma-terpinene (typically found in herbs like coriander). There was also a lot of iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium and sodium—substances consistent with the consumption of red meat or dairy products. DNA analysis of the materials showed the sources of the meat and fat to be ibex and red deer, and that the plant fragments came mainly from einkorn, an early form of domesticated wheat.

The real surprise was the proportion of the Iceman’s stomach contents that was animal fat—46% by weight. The only people nowadays who eat so much fat are those preparing for strenuous physical activities in harsh conditions. Dr Maixner and Dr Zink suggest that the Iceman’s contemporaries had worked out the value of fat in these circumstances, and that the Iceman himself, rather than being a spontaneous fugitive, had been planning on venturing into the mountains and had loaded up with high-fat foods in anticipation. The mystery of his death deepens.

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A mummy’s final meal adds to an ancient mystery