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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Glaciers and the Rise of Nazism

Poster from the 1938 Luis Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Prisma).

Glaciers and the mountains that convey them have come to symbolize purity— one which has been marred by glacial retreat. We long to return to a state in which glaciers aren’t retreating as a result of anthropogenic climate change, where the condition of the world aligns more closely with our belief in what it should be again. But, historically, glaciers and the mountains that convey them have also symbolized other, more insidious forms of purity.

In a recent article in German Studies Review, Wilfried Wilms outlines the ways in which a flurry of German films and novels in the 1930s recast the glacier-rich Alps and region of South Tyrol as traditional German living space. Wilms focuses on works produced between 1931 and 1936, a time when German nationalist discourse was on the rise and support of a greater pan-German alliance between Germany and mountainous Austria was gaining widespread currency in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover of 1933 and annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. By locating German speakers within alpine settings and showcasing their natural affinity to mountain climbing and glacier landscapes, filmmakers and novelists contributed to a discourse that sought to integrate the greater Germanic world by establishing a common set of uniquely German traits.

The jagged Dolomite range (Source: Kordi Vahle/Creative Commons).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Wilms described the roots of the notion of mountain and glacial purity in relation to both German racial and environmental ideals. “There is the discourse on elevation in Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra on rising above the lowlands; ennobling the Self in its struggle with the mountains; the purity of snow and firn [an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice], and its disconnectedness to the (soiled) realms below. After the defeat in World War I, the mountains become a place of individual, cultural and national renewal— a proving ground, a training ground for the youth and its future for Germany,” he said. Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which portrayed the horrors and banality of the first World War, German films after 1931 valorized war in ways that fed into the nation’s growing territorial ambitions.

The Langenferner Glacier in South Tyrol (Source: Noclador/Creative Commons).

Historically, the mountainous region of Tyrol had been home to a mostly German-speaking, Austrian population— that is, before Italian irredentists got in the way. With the Axis defeat at the close of the first World War, South Tyrol was formally ceded to Italy in the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Over the next decade, Mussolini instituted a series of Italianization programs in an effort to reduce the Germanic cultural sway in the region. These programs were well known to the public in Weimar Germany, and Wilms argues that a crisis emerged for Germans: as ideas of pan-Germanism were taking hold, their German-speaking brethren were being pushed out of their homeland, a place that was felt through its Alpine features to be distinctively German. A spate of cinematic and literary portrayals of the Alpine War, fought between Austrian and Italian troops in Tyrol during World War I, became a means through which the German population was mobilized and militarized in the lead-up to the second World War.

According to Noah Isenberg, a professor of culture and media at The New School, certain technical innovations also changed the way films were watched in Germany during this period. “In the early 1930s, thanks largely to the advent of sound (which came quite late to Germany), films tended to take advantage of recorded dialogue and elaborate musical scores. Berlin was known for its majestic picture palaces, with more than a thousand seats and ornate interiors, but in Germany’s smaller cities, audiences watched the films in mid-sized theaters, less grand in appearance and with more limited seating,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. The stage was set for irredentist films to have a maximal impact on German society. 

The Illimani Glacier as seen from the Bolivian city of La Paz (Source: Globus-Film).

One work that Wilms analyzes in detail in his article is Luis Trenker’s 1931 film, “Berge in Flammen” (Mountains in Flames). Trenker was a native of South Tyrol, as well as an Alpine War hero, mountaineer, novelist, actor and director. “Berge in Flammen” opens with a visual ode to the Tyrolean Alps. One can easily imagine how a German audience would have been transfixed by the spectacle: the camera first muses over billowing clouds, then transitions to a frontal shot of a looming mountain before following dense waves of fog as they drift through the spaces between stark stone cliffs. Even in 1930s black and white, the landscapes are mesmerizing.

Enter the film’s hero, played by Trenker himself, a confident rope in hand as he leads the way up a precipitous rock face, undaunted by the thousand-foot drop that outlines his figure. As he climbs further up the impossible height, the camera focuses in on his muscled legs and steady hands. The Austrian reaches a small platform where he pauses to pull up his climbing companion’s rope. His climbing partner, an Italian, then begins his own ascent, but he quickly loses his grip and careens down the rock face. The camera pans quickly to Trenker’s hands as they grip the rope that separates his friend from certain death. Then the camera pans again, this time to a close-up of Trenker’s determined face as he grits his teeth, holding fast to the rope as he selflessly risks his own life to save his companion.

A still taken from another Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Ernst Baumann).

As Wilms persuasively argues, scenes like these come to place German speakers firmly within an environment dominated by mountains and glaciers, places in which Italians are decidedly not at home. “Berge in Flammen” is filled with stunning shots of the snow-laden Alps, their glaciers appearing voluptuous and pure. Austrian glacial fortresses are bombarded by Italian shells, and explosions of smoke and snow crash across the mountaintops, but in having to enact this destruction, the Italians further reveal their unbelonging. Where the Italians work against the mountains, the Austrians work with them.

A typical scene in which Trenker negotiates with the elements (Source: Ernst Baumann).

According to Wilms, films from “Berge in Flammen” onward differ from the climbing epics of Arnold Fanck, Trenker’s mentor and the progenitor of the German “Mountain Film” genre. While Fanck’s films were centered on the struggle between man and mountain, Trenker’s films found their antagonists in exogenous non-Germans attempting to live in German-speaking lands. “Trenker juxtaposes topophilic depictions of place – in his case, his homeland of South Tyrol – with almost xenophobic depictions of dubious intruders, generally city people, tourists, and business men. These topophilic attachments lend themselves to national or nationalistic extensions,” Wilms said.

The return of South Tyrol to German control was a priority for Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” and a collection of important writers also propagated this view. Some of the titles from the period are telling: novels with names like “Comrades of the Mountains” (1932), “Heroes of the Mountains” (1935), “The Fortress in the Glacier” (1935), and “War Diary of a Mountain Climber” (1936) populate the German literary scene of the 1930s. German speakers are portrayed within this corpus as the native, original inhabitants of these mountain realms. Tyrol’s mountains are portrayed as eternal in the way that the German bloodstream is felt to be eternal.

An English-language poster for the 1932 Luis Trenker film (Source: Universal).

Glaciers, we know, are not eternal. But it is important to pause and reflect on the nature of our discourse about glaciers and how our ideals of purity can be turned in horrifying directions. According to Andrew Denning, a professor of German history at the University of Kansas, Germany’s race-based nationalism emerged through notions of the poetic grandeur of nature itself.

“Romantic artists and thinkers laid the groundwork for the shift in the perception of the mountains in the late 18th and early 19th century from fearsome to awe-inspiring,” Denning said. “Romantics celebrated the spirituality of nature and saw in ancient, imposing mountain landscapes the physical manifestation of their critique of Enlightened hubris. Simultaneously, Romantics spoke of mystical, spiritual communities defined by common history and culture, laying the foundation for the rise of cultural forms of nationalism over the course of the nineteenth century.” Our own U.S. national parksspaces of exclusion in their own waywere born of that same Romantic spirit, after all.