Ancient Mosses Add to the Story of the Iceman’s Final Days on Earth

After 5,300 years, Ötzi the Iceman continues to divulge secrets. Archaeobotanists recently identified seventy-five different species of mosses and liverworts (a non-vascular plant similar to moss) that were sprinkled on the neolithic man’s clothing, sequestered in his gut, and buried in the icy gully where he lay for millennia after his murder by the Schnalstal/Val Senales glacier in the Ötzal Alps. Many of these bryophtyes—another term for mosses and liverworts—are not local to the spot where the Iceman was found, and reveal information about his movements in the final forty-eight hours of his life. A study detailing the new findings was published this past fall in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

When the Iceman (also nicknamed Ötzi after the Ötzal Alps where he was found) was discovered by two hikers in South Tyrol, Italy in 1991, he was laying face down in a frozen gully. He had been killed over five thousand years prior—shot through the back with an arrow—but the glacier’s ice preserved his corpse. Also captured in the ice around his shriveled body was a menagerie of neolithic plants and fungi.

“The thought that it is possible to use plant remains to work out the details of a 5,000 year-old guy’s last days is very appealing!” lead author Jim Dickson told GlacierHub. Dickson, now retired, was a professor of archaeobotany at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Ötzi, for his part, lies frozen in a cold cell in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano Italy.     

A forensic reconstruction of what Ötzi may have looked like when he was murdered 5,300 years ago. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archeology)

Dickson and his colleagues from the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, gathered thousands of fragments of bryophytes picked off of the Iceman’s clothes, gear, the grass mats in the gully where he was found, and his gut. The assemblage of liverworts from that period—10 species altogether—is a particularly big find, because they do not last long exposed to weathering elements. Researchers surmised the plants must’ve been rapidly frozen by the glacier.

Seventy percent of the species picked from in and around Ötzi’s body do not live at the altitude where he was found—about 10,500 feet above sea level. This indicates to researchers that he carried some there himself. Others were likely deposited by animals, water or wind. Mosses and liverworts are unique non-vascular plants that do not reproduce with seeds, but with spores. They can cling unseen on people’s clothes or animal’s fur in the way that fungal spores or pollen can. As a person or creature tramps through the forest or meadows, tiny fragments of mosses can stick to their outsides as well. 

The mosses found in the Iceman’s gut were not ingested intentionally. In the same way that spores and fragments adhere to clothes or fur, they could’ve stuck to his food and gotten to his insides that way. Alpine ibex or chamois (a goat-antelope native to Europe) were likely the animals that unwittingly carried some of the other moss species up Schnalstal. Ötzi himself was a hunter—his bow was recovered by his side—and his last meal was of cured ibex meat.

Other neolithic mummies found preserved in bogs have had some mosses in their guts, but according to Dickson, these were not eaten intentionally either. “Mosses are not nutritious or palatable,” he said. “There is no good evidence that mosses have ever been eaten as staples anywhere, by anyone present or past.”    

Some species of moss have been used by indigenous peoples for medicinal and other practical purposes, however, and the Iceman himself did seem to be carrying one particular species of moss intentionally—Neckera complanata—that he had wrapped his food in. 

View of the Val Senales glacier and Similaun Mountain of the Schnalstal Valley where the Iceman was found protruding out of melting ice in 1991. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

He may have also used some of the mosses found in his gut to dress a deep cut on his hand.  Experts believe Ötzi sustained the injury in a fight a few days before his death. Two of the mosses found in his gut—both species of bogmoss—have absorbent, antiseptic properties and are found lower down the mountain. Dickson believes Ötzi used these bogmosses to staunch his badly sliced palm. Tiny pieces of moss would have stuck to his bloody fingers, so that when he ate, he’d have accidentally ingested the plants too.  

The Neckera complanata, bogmosses, and two other species collected with Ötzi are particularly revealing about his activities in the last forty-eight or so hours of his life. These mosses are all found at lower elevations in the Schnalstal Valley and indicate that he took a particularly strenuous climb up the glacier through a gorge. 

This corroborates a previous theory of his movements suggested after pollen from hophornbeam trees was found in large quantities in his bowels. Hophornbeam are plentiful in the lower Schnalstal. 

Why he took such a tiresome route up the Schnalstal could be explained by the fact that he was murdered and was possibly on the run from his attacker. The gorge is full of boulders and trees and has many hiding spots. Why he was on the lam we’ll never know, but it could’ve had to do with the cut he received on his hand a few days earlier. Perhaps an altercation broke out that caused him to flee for his life. In spite of his murderous end, however, countless studies of Ötzi and his belongings have furnished invaluable gifts of information about early human history that would otherwise be unknown.

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Tyrolean Iceman offers insights into Copper Age clothing.

From Nature: “The attire of the Tyrolean Iceman, a 5,300-year-old natural mummy from the Ötzal Italian Alps, provides a surviving example of ancient manufacturing technologies. Research into his garments has however, been limited by ambiguity surrounding their source species. Here we present a targeted enrichment and sequencing of full mitochondrial genomes sampled from his clothes and quiver, which elucidates the species of production for nine fragments. Results indicate that the majority of the samples originate from domestic ungulate species (cattle, sheep and goat), whose recovered haplogroups are now at high frequency in today’s domestic populations. Intriguingly, the hat and quiver samples were produced from wild species, brown bear and roe deer respectively. Combined, these results suggest that Copper Age populations made considered choices of clothing material from both the wild and domestic populations available to them.”

Learn more about the clothing of the Tyrolean Iceman here:

 Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

Reconstruction of Ötzi, the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

 

Early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers.

From Exploring Greenland: “Christopher J. Ries sheds light on the disparate goals of three diverse groups that created geological knowledge in post-World War II Greenland: the civilian scientists of the US Geological Survey Military Branch working in northern Greenland, an international team of geologists of the Danish East Greenland Expeditions led by Danish geologist Lauge Koch working in eastern Greenland, and geologists of the Danish Geological Survey of Greenland working in western Greenland. Ries argues that the interdisciplinary American group’s ultimate mission was to enhance the ability of military units to operate in Arctic terrains, while the two mono-disciplinary Danish-led teams attempted to balance academic interests in mapping and interpreting the structure of bedrock against more prosaic pursuit of profitable minerals.”

Read more about the early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers here:

A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).
A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).

 

Glacial melt of Tibetan Plateau exceeds USEPA guidelines.

From the Journal of Hydrology: “Global warming has resulted in rapid glacier retreat on the Tibetan Plateau, and the impacts of glacier melting on downstream ecosystems remain largely unknown. Minor and trace elements in stream water draining Dongkemadi Glacier  were examined during the ablation season of 2013…Downstream increased concentrations and/or fluxes of some metals and metalloid (e.g. Cr, Cu and As) suggest potential environmental impacts. Discharge-normalized cation denudation rate (372 Σmeq+m−3) in the Dongkemadi Glacier basin is larger than those from alpine and polar glaciers, suggesting a stronger weathering of carbonate with greater abundance on the Tibetan Plateau in comparison to other mountain and polar glacial catchments. The maximum Fe concentration exceeds the USEPA guideline, and Al, Zn and Pb are close to or of the same order of magnitude as liminal values. This implies that the Tibetan Plateau may face a challenge of ecosystem health and environmental issue in a warming climate.”

Learn more about the Tibetan Plateau here:

The landscape of Tibet (source: reurinkjan/Flickr).
The landscape of Tibet (source:
reurinkjan/Flickr).