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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Iceman to Make Comeback in Solo Series

Iceman, one of the legendary superheroes from Marvel Entertainment’s X-Men franchise, will slide back into the spotlight with his very own solo comic book series out this September. Among his many capacities, Iceman can fashion an icy armor to protect his body, form ice slides to move fast, create glaciers and utilize his destructive power to fully control water, ice and cold, making him the most powerful of the cold-based fictional characters. His comeback this fall is backdropped by an earlier 2015 revelation that the character is gay.

Until he discovered his superpower to manipulate water, ice and cold, Iceman was Bobby Drake, a regular teenage boy living in Long Island, New York, during the 1960s. Like others from the mutant race, Iceman found his born superpower when he hit puberty. He staged his first appearance in The X-Men #1 comic published in 1963. Since then, as one of the original X-Men characters, he has been critical in fighting antagonist Loki and other notorious bad guys.

As the youngest member of the first six X-Men, including Professor X, the founder and leader of X-Men, Bobby has always been the most chill of the superheroes, never showing any interest in becoming the strongest fighter. However, despite his slack personality, his superpowers stand out. Iceman is an omega-level mutant, the most powerful class of mutants in this fictional universe. Years of battling have seen him transformed from a chubby kid to a sharp fighter with a more crystalline and sleek, almost glacier-like, exterior. Over the years, his superpowers have only become more potent.

Marvel's Iceman on GlacierHub
Iceman creates glaciers anytime and anywhere he pleases (Source: Blindzider Photography).

Iceman can now convert the latent thermal energies in and around his body into efficiently dissipated energy, decrease the temperature to absolute zero within seconds, and freeze objects in any environment, even the desert, as long as there is water vapor. His power is so immense that he once saved the world from a massive nuclear explosion.

As one writer of the Iceman series, Mike Carey, said in an interview in 2008, Iceman has “powers that can influence the ecosystem of the entire world.”

Another mighty ability is that Iceman can turn himself into organic ice. By reforming his own body, adding sharp ice to his shoulders, knuckles and fists, he becomes a living weapon. Sometimes, he even uses his powers during a fight to conceal himself in an enormous glacier.

In fact, glaciers have likely served as an inspiration to the Marvel writers and artists in developing Iceman’s personality and heroic actions.

For example, Iceman gives a signature “glacier fist” to punch the villains and often creates glacier-like ice piles around himself to demonstrate the might of his power. It may be a coincidence, but even Bobby’s personality mirrors our public perception of ice and glaciers. For example, the writers gave Bobby a sensitive and emotional personality, with Bobby often making cold jokes and puns to hide his true feelings from others.

GlacierHub interviewed Ryan Haupt about the image of glaciers in X-Men and other comic books. Haupt is a Ph.D. candidate in paleoecology from the University of Wyoming and also a huge fan of comics. He has been involved in an AGU science communication project on counting the carbon footprint of superheroes. “There is a long history of heroes and villains with cold-based powers or themes,” he said. “In general, those characters tend to be villains, like Mister Freeze, Icicle, Captain Cold, or even the Penguin. I would guess that has to do with our cultural perceptions of cold versus hot. When we say someone is cold, we mean that they’re unaffectionate, standoffish and distant, whereas someone who is warm is welcoming, caring and nurturing.”

Haupt added, “These ideas might also apply to the image of glaciers; they’re remote, gigantic, unfeeling blocks of ice that I would guess most folks don’t think of as having any particular significance in their day-to-day life.”

The upcoming solo series will focus on Bobby trying to stop a new potential mutant massacre. The writers will also give more room to depict Bobby’s life as a gay man. Although the responses to Iceman’s solo comeback are not all positive, there is no doubt Iceman’s return will create some chill this autumn, maybe even bringing the discussion of glaciers and cold closer to the public.

New Research Offers Fresh Insight into the Iceman’s Death

Ötzi, also known as the Iceman, is showing new signs of life in his gut. Gabriele Andrea Lugli and other researchers from the University of Parma recently published findings on the Iceman in Microbiome Journal. Their research analyzes samples taken from Ötzi’s gut in order to reconstruct and characterize ancient bacteria to provide clues on how bacteria may have affected humans. While some evidence suggests that the Iceman was murdered or died from the lingering effects of an attack, researchers have now uncovered a new possible cause of death: inflammatory bowel disease.

Ötzi was originally found in a receding glacier by two tourists in the Italian Alps in 1991. First thought to be someone from more recent times, research has shown that he lived about 5,300 years ago. Since then, he has become the best known frozen mummy in the world, because his remains are remarkably intact and offer a clear view of the distant past. Though Ötzi’s skin looks like brown caramel and his bones can be seen through his skin, he is very well preserved. Last year, PBS released a documentary titled “Iceman Reborn about artist Gary Staab, who made a replica of the Iceman using 3D printing. One researcher in the film remarked, “He may well be the most studied human being in history.”

Another researcher, referring to new discoveries about Ötzi’s genetic code, noted, “We are rewriting the history of humankind.” It was recently discovered that the Iceman has 61 tattoos, up from a previously smaller number. Ötzi’s tattoos are in locations where there is joint and spinal degradation, indicating the tattoos may have been treatment of some kind. In addition, he was found with a gash on his left hand and an arrow wound in his back, suggesting that he was murdered. He was also found with a copper axe, showing researchers that metalworking was earlier than previously thought.

While climate conditions can alter bacterial communities, low temperatures such as permafrost are optimal for long-term DNA preservation. Using a technique called next generation sequencing, the researchers investigated the human gut microbiota in the soft tissue of the human mummy. The samples yielded an enormous amount of data– about 71 gigabases from 12 biopsy samples.

The Ötztal Alps, where Ötzi was found (source: Creative Commons).

Ancient bacteria, such as the ones found in Ötzi’s gut, can provide clues on the history of diseases, the evolution of bacteria and bacterial infections in humans, allowing scientists to reconstruct pathogens like the plague (Yersinia pestis), leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae) and stomach infections (Helicobacter pylori).

The researchers found that the upper part of the large intestines had ample Pseudomonas species. These bacteria are typically found in the soil. The presence of P. fluorescens in Ötzi’s intestines suggests that his immune system may have been compromised and that he may have been ill with inflammatory bowel disease at the time of his death.

Other findings included the fact that even though modern P. veronii have been isolated from water springs, the ancient strain seems to have the ability to colonize the human gut. The bacteria also shares genetic material with Pseudomonas strains in isolated parts of Antarctica, a fact which supports its ancient origin. Evidence suggests that the evolution of the bacteria was helped by the development of its virulence.

Tattoos found on the Iceman (source: Creative Commons).

The biopsy also revealed the ancient genome of C. perfringens in the Iceman’s gut. It shares the same genetic branch as another species, well-known as a cause of food poisoning. This finding suggests that C. perfringens was a cause of food poisoning in humans during Ötzi’s time. The researchers believe they may have also found a species of Clostridium incapable of metabolizing sucrose.

The scientists analyzed the samples at the Ancient DNA Laboratory of the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. Scientists had to follow stringent guidelines in order to work with the samples, including wearing protective clothing, exposing the equipment to UV-light, sterilizing surfaces with bleach, and using filtered pipette tips. These procedures protected Ötzi against contamination and the researchers against infection.

Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).
Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).

There is still a great deal of research that can be done on the biopsied samples in order to provide more clues on the cause of the Iceman’s death. Future explorations may also reveal more information on the interactions of bacteria and humans thousands of years ago. More than two decades after its discovery, the 5,300 year old mummy continues to yield new discoveries.