Ötzi the Iceman looks very different from what we thought

Mummified remains of Iceman Otzi reclined on a white table.
Mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman. Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum/EURAC/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz/ CC BY-SA 4.0
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Ötzi the Iceman looks very different from what we thought. The over 5,000 year old mummy was darker and had Anatolean ancestory.

Ötzi the Iceman is the natural mummy of a man who lived between 3350 and 3105 BC. The remains were discovered on 19 September 1991, in the Ötztal Alps. He is Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy, offering an unprecedented view of Copper Age (Chalcolithic) Europeans.

Since his discovery, scientists have studied him extensively and have been able to figure out what he ate (a grain-heavy, high carbohydrate diet and he was lactose intolerant), how he dressed and how he died (an arrowhead embedded in his left shoulder and various other wounds indicate that Ötzi was murdered). He also has 61 tattoos consisting of 19 groups of black lines on his entire body.

Ötzi’s full genome was published in 2012, at which point researchers also reconstructed what he looked like. He was estimated to be 45 years old when he died and the scientists considered him to be fair-skinned with a bushy beard and very thick hair. They also believed him to have deep-set eyes and wrinkled skin.

However, a new study using a more complete genomic analysis has completely changed previous understanding of Ötzi’s appearance and life. This new information indicates that Ötzi’s skin was darker than previously thought – darker than modern Europeans. He also had male pattern baldness. According to his genetic profile he may also have been pre-disposed to type 2 diabetes, as well as obesity.

“The genome analysis revealed phenotypic traits such as high skin pigmentation, dark eye color, and male pattern baldness that are in stark contrast to the previous reconstructions that show a light-skinned, light-eyed, and quite hairy male,” said Johannes Krause, lead author of the study to New Scientist. “The mummy itself, however, is dark and has no hair.”

“It’s the darkest skin tone that has been recorded in contemporary European individuals,” explains anthropologist Albert Zink, study co-author and head of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano: “It was previously thought that the mummy’s skin had darkened during its preservation in the ice, but presumably what we see now is actually largely Ötzi’s original skin color. Knowing this, of course, is also important for the proper conservation of the mummy.”

“This is a relatively clear result and could also explain why almost no hair was found on the mummy,” says Zink.

However, the most surprising discovery was that 90% of his ancestory came from Anatolia (a region in West Asia in what is now Turkiye). The remaining part of his genome comprised of western hunter-gatherers. Surprisingly, there was no trace of eastern Steppe Herder genes that had been reported in the 2012 study.

“We were very surprised to find no traces of Eastern European Steppe Herders in the most recent analysis of the Iceman genome; the proportion of hunter-gatherer genes in Ötzi’s genome is also very low,” said Krause. “Genetically, his ancestors seem to have arrived directly from Anatolia without mixing with hunter gatherer groups.”

His remains and personal belongings are on exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

Read the full study here.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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