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An Ice-Cold Case

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 - 03:20 PM

(Danica Novgorodoff)

Scientists' obsession with one particular man - and with the tiny scraps of evidence left in the wake of his death - gives us a surprisingly intimate peek into the life of someone who should've been lost to the ages.

A little over 20 years ago, a perfectly preserved corpse was found buried in the ice, high up in the Alps. And after decades of investigating, cutting-edge forensics have revealed not only a murder mystery, but a startling story about one man's final days.

When hikers first found Ötzi (the nickname given to the body discovered in 1991), everyone assumed they'd stumbled upon an unfortunate mountaineering accident. But as the body was pulled from the ice, authorities started to suspect this wasn't a modern-day adventure gone wrong. It was, as producer Andy Mills explains, an OLD body. Really, really old. 

Botanist Jim Dickson, graphic artist Aaron Birk, and Albert Zinc, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, describe how scientific advances and modern forensic breakthroughs have uncovered an ancient tale of violence and humanity.

Guests:

Aaron Birk, Jim Dickson, Andy Mills and Albert Zinc

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Comments [40]

Gertrude N. Poe from Florida

I find this completely fascinating with this story. It amazes me how nature could preserve this body so perfectly, only for us to find it, and find a real person who experienced the things that happened in the past. It's interesting to hear about a real person who lived so long ago, and get to kind of know him, what he wore, what he ate, what life would've been like 5,000 years ago. Much better than reading about it in a book. One day I might visit the museum with Otzi in it and have that experience of seeing who he was for myself.

Oct. 27 2014 05:23 PM
Keats A. Dunbar from United States

This podcast was so easy to listen to and was very enjoyable. Being a person who likes mystery and crime solving, I really wanted to hear more. There were still a couple things they talked about that left me confused. Like others said above, why didn't his killers take any of the valuables? Usually if someone kills someone else it's for something. Very rarely do you find someone who kills just to kill. Although keeping me interesting for 20 minutes, I think the scientists didn't consider all the variables and didn't gather quite enough evidence.

Oct. 27 2014 05:22 PM
Keats A. Dunbar from United States

This podcast was so easy to listen to and was very enjoyable. Being a person who likes mystery and crime solving, I really wanted to hear more. There were still a couple things they talked about that left me confused. Like others said above, why didn't his killers take any of the valuables? Usually if someone kills someone else it's for something. Very rarely do you find someone who kills just to kill. Although keeping me interesting for 20 minutes, I think the scientists didn't consider all the variables and didn't gather quite enough evidence.

Oct. 27 2014 05:22 PM
Virginia N. Plath from United States

I am amazed that a body so old can stay preserved so well. I wish I could travel back and see for myself what happened, for I have always been interested in this time period and I love a good murder mystery. I wonder though, why the killers left his weapons behind. Would these not be valuable to them? Especially because they must have taken so long to craft by hand.

Oct. 20 2014 08:23 PM
Emma from TX

I truly love your show. I, myself, am in middle school and I convinced my science and history teachers to look into Radiolab and review some of the podcasts on here. From that point, my teachers (and classmates) were extremely captivated by the show and decided to speak to us about some of these theories and discussions. Not only was this podcast intriguing, but it taught my class (and teachers) about the theories of how this man died and whether or not the world froze all at once (during the 'ice age') or gradually over time and how this could be possible. Thank you for the amazing shows :)

Sep. 23 2014 09:32 PM

I don't how I would react to finding an almost perfectly preserved corpse. It's amazing to hear that a person over five thousand years old is perfectly freeze dried, basically. The connections that can be made from this man would be amazing. After finding the arrowhead it blew up as a murder mystery. I'm not sure why we would take all the time and technology to find out how he died. But it is very interesting to see what happened and what he was doing and what he ate before he died.

May. 04 2014 07:21 PM
Tyrion Lannister from Casterly Rock

Another great podcast! And the pictures – unreal (and a tad eerie). I just can’t believe that while hiking, minding their business, some people found Ötzi! How amazing it is that they found him buried all those years, how amazing it is that he’s been there and in that condition for so long and how truly amazing it is that science and technology has advanced that we are able to know what kind of man Ötzi was.

Apr. 18 2014 09:58 PM

I was amazed about how well the body was preserved. My curiosity was piqued from the start. How did the body get there? What was he doing in his last hours? All the possible theories about his life and death are mindboggling.The way science has developed to decipher these discoveries is remarkable.

Apr. 10 2014 10:02 PM

This podcast absolutely appeals to the listeners sense of curiosity, with the ominous instrumental playing quietly behind their voices and the dramatic pauses. Each sentence drew me in more and more. I am also curious, however, as to how this mysterious man might be able to help humanity today. As much as the story was incredibly intriguing and well put together, I still want to see a more scientific view as to what Otzi has to offer modern society.

Apr. 10 2014 08:52 PM
pink123

I thought this podcast was amazing! It kept me hooked the whole time and used great use of suspenseful music to set the tone and keep me on edge. I thought how they organized their topics was kept it informational but not boring. Overall, this was a well written podcast.

Apr. 02 2014 08:37 PM

Wonderful Podcast. Thank you for the inspiring stories each week!

I'm a filmmaker and have been enthralled by the Oetzi story, to the point that I'm investigating an adaption. In my research I discovered that the History channel has indeed already made a pretty good documentary on the topic. All Oetzi fans can check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I6YQsNYffc

Mar. 30 2014 11:40 PM
cobweb

Don't forget about the rap 2007 group Otzi's Axe!

https://myspace.com/otziaxe
www.scissorproofrecords.com

Mar. 04 2014 07:53 AM
April in New York from New York, NY

Why do scientists seem to assume the climate would be the same as long ago, as it is now. I understand that Europe was heavily forested and colder, then, lions and tigers living there. Before too many humans, the world's most destructive species bred too much. Now we're destroying more species all the time. How about a show on overpopulation as a cause of desertification and climate change?

Jan. 09 2014 11:15 AM
נו, באמת.

Bunch of amateurs. If they had given it to Bones they would not only have figured out how he died, but also catch the killer.

Dec. 24 2013 10:34 PM
mark from fort wanye,IN

It is a caveman!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dec. 21 2013 04:18 PM
coco from MERANO, Italy

Hi there,
I know Radiolab for not such a long time and today I thought - let's have a look.. And then I found this about a for me well-known mummy ;)
Well, I live near to where he was found, 30 kms from the museum.. and it is so surprising to me to hear this so wonderful told radio-story about OETZI - der Gletschermann ;) . THANK You!!

Dec. 17 2013 05:31 AM
Judd

I am surprised they didn't do a FULL CT/MRI scan when the first found him.

Dec. 11 2013 03:50 PM
Ethan

Is anybody else having difficulties downloading this episode in Apple's Podcasts app?

It either sits at "Preparing to download..." and then shows an error or it downloads, gets to the "Processing" stage and then shows an error.
http://i.imgur.com/D0RP62g.jpg

Dec. 10 2013 02:25 PM
Ben from Seattle, WA

Why do completely frozen bodies deteriorate? How does periodic thawing preserve the body?

Dec. 06 2013 07:07 PM
Meredith Wilson from Virginia

I'm surprised that there hasn't been more speculation on whether or not he was a criminal. Think about it: what would drive someone to chase a person across thousands of feet of rugged terrain, shoot them in the back and bash their head in with a rock for good measure? You have to have a real hate on to go to those lengths. What I think happened is lone male comes down from the mountain, meets people living in the low lands, he's shown some hospitality by them(share their bread and meat with him), he commits a terrible crime that is exposed during his last meal with the group whereupon various members pursue and kill him. Whatever the crime was must have been terrible for his pursuers to not even want to take his ax or bow.

Dec. 05 2013 06:20 PM
Chris

I am wondering if it is possible to determine if Otzi had any offspring by comparing his DNA to people of today? Could we find who in today's society is related to Otzi?

Dec. 02 2013 05:21 PM
JR

If you ever find yourself in Bolzano Italy, visit the excellent museum dedicated entirely to Otzi. It is comprehensive and really well done. Otzi himself is housed in a custom built freezer with windows through which you can view his remains. Most impressive, for me anyway, was standing next to an incredibly lifelike "wax" replica of the man. You can almost see him breathe.

Dec. 01 2013 08:08 AM
gwg

It would have good if the team reporting the story had spent three minutes finding out the correct pronunciation of "Ötzi" before recording this piece. I know umlauts are scary, but it's not that hard.

Nov. 27 2013 11:04 PM
Vanessa from Colorado

I don't think he was alone. Perhaps he was defending his family and his wife cooked the large meal he had before his death.

Nov. 24 2013 07:24 PM
Mark Worths from Dallas, TX

Loved this show! It seems like without knowing what was culturally or socially normal for the time (3000 BC?) It would be difficult to develop any real (satisfying) backstory. Ötzi could have been given the meal by his killer as a courtesy (much like we provide last meals to condemned prisoners today). Ötzi could have been a scoundrel (as theorized elsewhere) and on the run, or a slave that had broken fre. I wish we had more information for the time he lived in!

Nov. 24 2013 03:52 PM
Katherine from Toronto, Canada

I've ready many articles about Otzi, but never before have I been so touched by his humanity. Thank you for yet another terrific show.

Nov. 23 2013 06:51 PM
John Sawoski from Los Angeles, CA

A couple of questions:
1) If the person who killed Ötzi removed the shaft of the arrow that killed Ötzi (which may have been a custom), why couldn't Ötzi have just killed a dozen or so enemies and kept his empty arrow shafts? Why do the scientists instead theorize that Ötzi was in a hurry and was defenseless with useless arrows?
2) Does the presence of high-mountain pollen in water necessarily indicate that the water was consumed at high altitude? Can't pollen travel downstream in the water, and be at higher concentrations in specific streams of water? If the latter, then perhaps Ötzi didn't travel up and down as much as theorized.
3) Does the presence of goat meat and bread indicate that Ötzi cooked, rested, or even obtained that food in any legitimate way? Why couldn't he have raided an enemy compound and stolen the food?

I'm wondering if Ötzi was an outlaw who was being pursued for mass murder and theft, but was left dead in the wilderness out of disrespect.

Nov. 23 2013 06:30 PM
John Sawoski from Los Angeles, CA

A couple of questions:
1) If the person who killed Ötzi removed the shaft of the arrow that killed Ötzi (which may have been a custom), why couldn't Ötzi have just killed a dozen or so enemies and kept his empty arrow shafts? Why do the scientists instead theorize that Ötzi was in a hurry and was defenseless with useless arrows?
2) Does the presence of high-mountain pollen in water necessarily indicate that the water was consumed at high altitude? Can't pollen travel downstream in the water, and be at higher concentrations in specific streams of water? If the latter, then perhaps Ötzi didn't travel up and down as much as theorized.
3) Does the presence of goat meat and bread indicate that Ötzi cooked, rested, or even obtained that food in any legitimate way? Why couldn't he have raided and enemy compound and stolen the food.

I'm wondering if Ötzi was an outlaw who was being pursued for mass murder and theft, but was left dead in the wilderness out of disrespect.

Nov. 23 2013 05:00 PM

Hey Martin and Kevin! There are WAY more theories and discoveries than we had time to put into this story. If you want to learn more the best place to start is by checking out the website for the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology http://www.iceman.it/en. One of the questions that Zinc and his team are still trying to answer is: WHY DIDN'T THE MURDERER TAKE THE AXE?! Some people think it was because these axes were common and not worth the extra weight when hiking the Alps. Some people think that the murderer didn't want to be caught and accused of murder, so they wouldn't want to be seen with Ötzi's things. My favorite theory is that Ötzi had a friend with him. There was a ton of blood on Ötzi's shoulder - as if he was carrying a wounded person with him. I want to believe that Ötzi's friend scared off the murderer, pulled the arrow out of his back, bashed his head in as an act of mercy, and left him with all of his things out of respect. But we'll have to wait and see what the researchers discover! Thanks for listening, y'all.

Nov. 22 2013 05:33 PM
Kevin McAleer from Richmond, VT

Is the arrow head he was shot with similar to the arrow heads he carried? If they're similar maybe he was driven from the village by a younger man, or as the result of some other strife. If they're not alike, maybe he just robbed some goat meat and was chased down and killed. All based on the pretense that people of the same groups tend to make things alike.

Nov. 22 2013 10:36 AM
Martin Danger from Perth, Australia

Thanks for the short about the ice-man - truly fascinating! I don't know how to make radio programs and decide what to include so with that in mind, can I ask why you didn't include this stuff?

- I understand that he had Lyme disease - interesting implications there for his physical and mental health depending on the disease's progression.

- An axe was found with the body. It was made from bronze, a surprising find as scholars thought bronze making wasn't invented then. If they are right, the axe could have been 1) valuable and 2) rare. Surely, a technologically advanced tool would have been very useful to the killer ... unless the killer had a very good reason not to take it (maybe it could identify them as the killer if they were seen with it)?

Nov. 21 2013 08:18 PM

I don't understand the conclusion that Otzi was murdered. His axe, longbow and other stuff were valuable. Why would the killers leave those items there?
How about this hypotheses.
Days ago he was cutting up the goat, he cut his hand.
The day of his death he had a meal of left over goat.
He was walking along tripped and fell. An arrow head on the quiver he was carrying stabbed him in the shoulder. He reaches around and only manages to pull the shaft out.
He's bleeding out, staggers falls from a height and bashes his head against a rock.

Nov. 21 2013 04:30 PM
Adam

I'd really like to read the fictional story mentioned at the end. Any word of when that will be posted to the site?

Nov. 21 2013 03:49 PM
Kevin from Seattle

Long time fan of talk radio and it's been about a year since I happily discovered your show. The show absolutely has the most entertaining and insightful stories. Going to go see the show tonight! Thank you again!

Nov. 21 2013 02:14 PM
Kevin from Seattle

Long time fan of talk radio and it's been about a year since I happily discovered your show. The show absolutely has the most entertaining and insightful stories. Thank you again!

Nov. 21 2013 02:06 PM
leo costa from Miami, FL

Thank you for a great podcast!!!
I had the privilege of seeing Ötzi "in person" back in 2009, while on vacation with my family, at a museum in Varberg, Sweden. This podcast brought back a lot of fun memories!
You guys tell the best stories!

Nov. 21 2013 01:41 PM
Rebecca

What is the beautiful music used in the background?

Nov. 21 2013 10:16 AM
Erin from Not from Portland

Forensic science is truly fascinating! Thanks again for another interesting podcast. It is a shame Otzi was not of the Kenyan tribe so that he could outrun his enemies. I highly recommend listening with choice headphones as I enjoyed the true stereo of your sound effects and music. Thanks!!!

Nov. 20 2013 05:45 PM
Caleb from Portland, OR

Another fellow Portlander here, and long-time Radiolab fan. I am so upset that I don't get to see tonight's show, but I wanted to thank you for making such a wonderful program and providing me with countless hours of entertainment during what would be an otherwise very dull commute, workday, run, etc. Radiolab has become such a major part of my days, and I only wish there were more episodes to listen to! Keep up the outstanding work!

Nov. 20 2013 01:34 PM
Jacob from Portland, OR

Portlander checking in; this was amazing, as all your stories have been. It amazes me how much emotion can be conveyed over the radio when done correctly.

I can't wait to see you tonight at the Keller!

Nov. 20 2013 01:23 PM

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