Ötzi the iceman sharpened his tools a few days before his murder

Credits: Wikimedia Commons / 120

A few days before he was murdered in the Italian Alps around 5,300 years ago, Ötzi the iceman had just sharpened his tools, probably with his right hand, according to new analyses. 

Ötzi was discovered buried under a layer of ice on the 19th September 1991, at 3,210 meters in altitude in the Schnals in Italy. His presence was revealed by a significant thaw of the glacier. The man appeared to have been stabbed with an arrow shot into his back from a distance of 30 to 40 meters. So was he preparing for a fight? Probably not. Although recent analyses have shown that Ötzi had sharpened a few tools a few days before he was murdered, for Ursula Wiere, the main author of the study, Ötzi was sure to have been preparing for trading or hunting.

Ötzi’s tool box included a dagger, an end scraper, a borer, a flake, an antler retoucher and two arrowheads. Analysis of these artefacts proved very difficult. The scientists had only a few days to examine each tool using powerful microscopes and computed tomography (CT) scans. Within the framework of their inquiry, the researchers concentrated mainly on examining the type of chert – a hard, dark rock made of silica – which was used to make a large number of Ötzi’s tools. They found that it had come from at least three areas: outcrops in Trentino (Italy) around 40 kilometers away, rocky places in the south west of Trentin up to 75 kilometers away, and possibly the Trento Plateau, situated at least 70 kilometers away.

Given the distance between these places and where Ötzi appears to have lived in the Vinschgau valley – in the modern day province of South Tyrol in Italy – it is possible that Ötzi or his contemporaries had traded with people from different regions. “I think we have to imagine that the trade at the time was already quite far-reaching for certain raw materials and certain products”, notes the researcher. Almost all of Ötzi’s tools were reworked or sharpened over the years, but two artefacts – the oval shaped scraper, probably used for cutting plants or animal skins, and the borer, sure to have been used for boring holes in materials such as wood – had been modified shortly before his death. Appearing to have been made by Ötzi himself, these new modifications did not show any signs of wear.

“Through analyzing the Iceman’s toolkit from different viewpoints and reconstructing the entire life cycle of each instrument, we were able to gain insights into Ötzi’s cultural background, his individual history, and his last hectic days”, explained the researcher to Gizmodo.

Through also examining the pollen contained in the foods consumed by Ötzi, the researchers were able to reconstruct his movements in the hours that preceded his death. Around 33 hours before perishing, Ötzi was in the mountains at an altitude of 2,500 meters above sea level. From there, he descended along the southern slope of the alpine ridge, reaching an area in which he spent some time before making another ascent into the mountains. He would then have climbed to a height of 3,000 meters, around four to five hours before his death. Ötzi managed to eat three times over the course of these 33 hours, including a final meal around two hours before being killed.

It is almost certain that Ötzi was involved in a conflict in the hours preceding his death, as evidenced by several injuries on his body, including a deep gash in his right hand, characteristic of self-defense. Going by the fact that the healing process had already started, the researchers know that the cut was produced at least 24 hours before Ötzi’s death.


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