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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As glaciers melt, bodies resurface

In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter was flying over the Colony Glacier on a routine training flight when the crew noticed bits of wreckage scattered on the ice. The twisted metal, bits of cloth and other debris turned out to be all that was left of a C-124 Globemaster II troop transport that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 people on board.

In June of this year, the Department of Defense said it identified the remains of 17 servicemen from the crash site. “It’s taken 60 years for the wreckage and portions of the plane to actually come out of the glacier underneath all that ice and snow,” said Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist for the military, in a 2012 interview. “It’s starting to erode out now.”

The crash site was nothing like that of a nearly intact World War II-era fighter found in the Sahara. Because of the to the glacier’s splitting ice crevasses, much of the plane, and the plane’s remaining crew, are likely still frozen after 60 years. The location of the troop transport, which was known not long after the crash, had been lost because of the glacier’s movement and the opening and closing of those crevasses.

The reappearance of a long-lost body in the ice isn’t a new thing and will likely become more common as global climate change melts more ice, revealing the frozen corpses of people thought to be missing forever.

The most famous glacier find happened over two decades ago. In 1991, two German tourists were climbing the Similaun peak on a sunny afternoon in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border when they spied a body lying facedown and half-frozen in the ice. What was left of the body’s skin was hardened, light brown in color, and stretched tightly across its skeleton.

The man the tourists found turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. Named Ötzi, after the Ötzal region of the Alps he was found in, the natural mummy provided a look into Copper Age Europe. He had tools, clothes and even shoes frozen along with him. Ötzi’s remarkable preservation (he’s Europe’s oldest natural mummy) was due to him being covered in snow and later ice shortly after death, shielding him from decay.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Last summer, elsewhere in the Alps, a rescue helicopter pilot spotted something that shouldn’t be in the glaciers surrounding the Matterhorn: abandoned equipment and clothing wrapped around bones. Those remains turned out to be those of 27-year-old British climber Jonathan Conville, who had disappeared on the mountain in 1979. Hundreds of people have been reported missing from the area surrounding the Matterhorn and melting ice means more of them might be found.

The tiny town of Peio, high up in the Italian Alps, has grown accustomed to this phenomenon. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the peaks, caves and glaciers around Peio were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I between Imperial and Italian forces. From 1915-1918, the two sides fought along the hundreds of miles of the Italian Front where more than a million soldiers died and two million more were wounded in the aptly named White War.

Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)
Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)

As the Alpine glaciers melt high above Peio, rifles, equipment, bits of tattered uniforms and even letters and diaries from a hundred years ago again see the light of day. Though many of these relics are displayed in the town’s war museum, many more are looted by treasure hunters hoping to resell them on the black market.

The frozen, mummified bodies of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers have also started to resurface. In 2012, two soldiers who died in the 1918 Battle of Presena were given a military funeral in Peio. When they died, the two young Austrian fighters were buried top-to-toe in a crevasse in the Presena Glacier. As with the Alaska crash, only the glacier decides when and where to give up a body. But humans, by changing our planet’s atmosphere and climate, are giving glaciers a strong nudge.

The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)