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.

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Roundup: Tyrolean Iceman, Greenland Glaciers and Tibetan Melt

Roundup: Clues to Ötzi, Greenland Glaciers and Tibet

 

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).

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Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age

The Iceman's reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter
The Iceman’s reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

Have you heard of Ötzi? One of the world’s best-preserved mummies, he immediately became an archaeological sensation when he came to light in 1991, and new details of his story have been surfacing in scientific journals, magazines, television programs and on the radio ever since—Radiolab dedicated an entire episode to Ötzi just last year.

A 45-year-old Neolithic man, fully clothed and carrying a backpack, an axe, a dagger, medicinal plants, and many other personal belongings, he was discovered by a pair of hikers in the Ötzal Alps of Italy lying face down in glacial ice and meltwater. At first the hikers thought he was the victim of a recent mountaineering accident. But when scientists took a look, they discovered the body was over 5,000 years old.

Ötzi could be considered the poster child for what has since become its own branch of study: glacier 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)
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)

Though it has been over two decades since Ötzi was discovered, and many more major finds have surfaced in melting ice and snow in the time since then, glacier archaeology is a field that is only now coming into its own. While one-offs like Ötzi and other mummies have made thrilling finds, the potential for recovery of new artifacts is growing as glacial melt accelerates around the globe. Just this November, the first journal dedicated exclusively to glacier archaeology launched: it’s called, suitably, The Journal of Glacier Archaeology.

“There is immediacy to this research,” write the editors in an introduction to the journal’s first annual issue. “Climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay. Consequently, it is imperative to extend the geographic scope of this research now.” Once the artifacts thaw, they begin to decompose, and shrivel up, which makes them less valuable to researchers, which has lent the hunt for finds a sense of urgency. Vast regions of Asia, Europe, and North and South American have so far been virtually untouched by the discipline. Identifying good new sites in remote glaciated regions of the world is increasingly being done with the aid of advanced technology: not just aerial photography and helicopter surveys, but satellite imagery and geographic systems modeling.

Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The first issue of the journal offers, among other things, an overview of findings about the impeccably preserved 500-year-old “Inca Ice Maiden” and two other mummified Inca children, discovered together in 1999 on Mount Lullaillaco in northwestern Argentina and understood to be human sacrifices; a pollen analysis of caribou dung found on ice patches in the Yukon; a discussion of bronze age arrows found in Norwegian alpine snow patches (see below); and an analysis of GIS (Geographic Information Systems mapping) methods used by glacial archaeologists.

Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem:NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeol- ogy. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem: NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeology. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

A series of annual meetings called “Frozen Pasts,” first launched in Switzerland in 2008, provided the impetus for the new journal, according to Martin Callanan, a glacial archaeologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and managing editor of the journal. “It’s a bottom-up thing—people working with the same things, the same complex phenomena, the same findings, all finding each other and saying something is going on here, and it’s global, we need to have regular meetings and a proper publication for ourselves,” he says. “It’s its own special little field…we’ve only started looking.”

The Cryospheric Gallery

The funny thing about the term glacial archaeology is that most artifacts recovered intact from melting snow and ice actually come from what are called snow and ice “patches,” according to Callanan. That’s because snow and ice patches don’t grow and recede the way glaciers do, making them less likely to crush artifacts in their midst to dust over time. There is an ongoing debate over whether these formations are considered “glacial” or not, he says, and in terms of their cryospheric properties, they’re not well understood.

“I think initially people thought you could just transfer glacial theory or dynamics over and that would explain them, but that’s not the case,” says Callanan. “They’re at an elevation far below the [glacier] equilibrium line, seem to be of an age that would indicate they are stable, but at the same time, some of them are surrounded by evidence that there’s been movement in the past, so it’s turned out to be one of the really interesting aspects of this. It’s a new member of the cryospheric gallery.” These ice or snow patches, he says, may have been strictly glacial in formation during the Little Ice Age.

The snow patch at  Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The snow patch at Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

There is also an ongoing battle over who is allowed into the club–who can and should call themselves glacial archaeologists. Many more traditional archaeological finds have been dug up out of permafrost—a subterranean layer of earth that is frozen year-round and is typically found at some alpine altitudes and at high latitudes, such as the Arctic and Antarctic regions. “There are wonderful complex finds in the permafrost, but they have a different physical background and regime than ice patches, and there’s all sorts of different sites: grave sites, graveyards, villages, houses. Then it would be a more standard archeological excavation, but the warming thing is what binds them together,” says Callanan.

“So I’m part of the school that says permafrost is in, but we’re still arguing about that.”

For a related story in glacierhub about bodies resurfacing as ice melts, check out this link.

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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)
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