Nov 19, 2013

An Ice-Cold Case

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.

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Jim Dixon: Hello there. This is Jim Dickson speaking.

Soren Wheeler: Hello, Dr. Dickson. My name is Soren.

Jim: Soren?

Soren: Yes. I'm the producer for today. You'll actually be talking to our host Jad, he's on his way over to the studios, right now.

Jim: That's good.

Jad Abumrad: Let's just start the story here. This is a bit of tape we've had for a while. It's just fun, It'll lead into the story in a second. Hello, Dr. Dixon.

Jim: Hello there, Jad.

Jad: Hi. How are you?

Jim: I'm very well, thank you. I'm always pleased to talk about my delightful obsession. I've had for more than 10 years, which led to my marriage to a French lady. I'm not joking.

[laughter]

Jad: How does the marriage to the French lady factor in?

Jim: Well, we met on email. A bit like you've got mail, the Hollywood film. Well, my wife is sitting beside me and she's making signals. Well, what is it that you're saying, dear?

Jad: Sorry, is there any chance we could talk to your wife? She's sitting right there, next to you?

Jim: Yes, they want to talk to you dear.

Mrs. Dixon: Oh, yes [unintelligible 00:02:11]

Jim: Come on.

Mrs. Dixon: Hello?

Jad: Hi.

Mrs. Dixon: Hi. Sorry, I am French and my English is not very excellent.

Jad: No, you're fantastic. Bonjour?

Mrs. Dixon: Bonjour.

Jad: He mentioned that Ötzi was what brought you together.

Mrs. Dixon: Yes, it's true. I was a teacher, a primary school teacher.

Jim: She emailed me some questions, about Ötzi, and I answered them to the best of my ability, and shortly after we were married.

Mrs. Dixon: Yes.

Jad: No kidding.

Jim: Ötzi is my benefactor, my friend.

[laughter]

Jad: We should introduce ourselves real fast. I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: I am Robert.

Jad: This is Radiolab.

Robert: The podcast.

Jad: That guy, Jim Dickson, he's a botanist. Called him four years ago to talk about this fellow, Ötzi. We're going to tell Ötzi story in completely in just a second. There's something in the whole interaction between him and his wife there, they just kind of captures how everybody gets when they get into Ötzi. They either get married or they get obsessed.

Robert: Yes, but it wasn't until very recently our producer, Andy Mills, and I happened to talk to this graphic artist named Aaron Birk, who is also totally obsessed with this guy Ötzi.

Andy Mills: Yes. I think there's this hunger on the part of the--

Robert: That's when we really understood what this story is all about.

Jad: Yes. At least for me, that's where it all started.

Robert: Since Andy has been reporting this piece, why don't Andy you just take the ball from here.

Jad: Do it, Andy.

Andy: Story starts 1991, way up in the Alps.

Jim: At 3,210 meters above sea level. I know you Americans don't think in meters, that's roughly 10.5 thousand feet.

Andy: This is a frozen glacial spot, and up there walking around-

Jim: -were two hill-walkers

Jad: Two hill-walkers hikers.

Jim: Hikers. It was a Germany couple, a man and a wife.

Andy: It was early in the afternoon.

Jad: At some point, they take a notion to the head-off trail.

Jim: They were only a hundred yards off the beaten track.

Andy: After just a few minutes-

Jad: -they round a little rock and that's when they were stopped dead in their tracks.

Robert: By what?

Jad: By a corpse.

Jim: A corpse sticking out of the ice. He was lying on his stomach.

Andy: Face-down in the ice.

Jim: He was draped over a big Boulder.

Jad: His legs are buried under the ice up to his hips, and his top-half is just sticking out.

Andy: His left arm is under his forehead, almost like a schoolboy falling asleep in class on his arm.

Jad: These two hikers, they see this and they run off for help.

Jim: They hot foot it into the nearby mountain hut, thinking it was a mountaineering accident.

Andy: A recent one.

Jim: They called the police.

Andy: They said," Hey, somebody, a tourist or a climber had some accident," the cops showed up with drills and ice picks and started to chip away at the ice, trying to get the body out. Then, they started noticing some things, this guy had all these tattoos.

Jim: On his back and the behind his knees.

Jad: Then they start noticing all this stuff buried with him.

Andy: He's got some kind of moccasin looks like ox skin.

Jim: He had a bare skin cap.

Andy: Unusual stuff.

Jim: He had a copper headed u-hafted axe.

Jad: A what?

Andy: A small pouch filled with medicinal tree fungus,

Robert: Really?

Jim: A quiver full of arrows, a longbow.

Andy: He had grass socks.

Jim: Grass socks?

Jad: Yes, woven grass.

Andy: A dagger that had been chipped out of stone.

Jad: These cops realized-

Andy: -this is not a 20th-century tourist who wandered off-trail.

Jim: This was something extraordinary.

Andy: This is old.

Robert: Like renaissance or old middle ages or old?

Andy: Well wouldn't we like to know?

Jad: What did the police do?

Jim: Well, the police reported it to the forensic authorities in the University of Ensberg.

Andy: Basically, they took it to a team of local scientists who sent samples out to a bunch of labs and eventually confirmed that, yes, this is old, but not just old, this was really old. This body is 5,300 years old.

Listeners: Wow.

Andy: That's way before Jesus, way before Moses.

Jad: If you had to use it as a historic mark point, let's say the pyramids of Egypt. This would be the 700 years prior to the construction of the pyramid in Giza.

Jim: It was beyond archeologists' wildest dreams. A 5,200-year-old perfectly preserved corpse.

Andy: We're talking about a man with all his skin, with his eyeballs, his teeth, his tongue, his groin, his organs, his guts everything's in there. Everything is almost perfectly freeze-dried.

Jim: There he is.

Jad: What does he look like?

Jim: Oh, well, he was bearded.

Andy: He's 45 years old, which I think for a 3,000 BC is pretty darn old.

Jim: He was a small guy. He was only about five-foot-two in height.

Andy: His calf muscles, his thigh muscles are incredibly developed. This would suggest that he's a hunter or a shepherd of some kind who walks these mountains.

Jim: His physique is comparable to the modern Olympian wrestler. He's very obviously a human being. Very very obviously, and he would have all the hopes and the fears of you and I.

Andy: They even gave him a name.

Jim: Ötzi.

Jad: Artsi, Otpsi, Ötzi.

Andy: Even though some of us can't really pronounce that name.

Jad: Ötzi.

Robert: Spell it.

Andy: O with two dots on top.

Automated voice: Scientists, call him Ötzi.

Andy: There's all kinds of drama. There's Austria competing with Italy. He's our mummy, no, he's our mummy, he's on the border. Whose mummy is he?

Jad: Eventually the Italian got him.

Jim: Because he's said to be 92 meters inside Italy.

[laughter]

Andy: A whole museum is built around him. An entire facility is built to freeze him. There's teams of researchers, there's competing universities. You have documentaries, you have books and articles about this incredible mummy who was walking in the ice, he fell, isn't that fascinating?

Jad: You know Brad Pitt?

Jim: Yes.

Jad: He got a tattoo of Ötzi his arm.

Jim: Really?

Jad: What everyone really wanted to know was-

Jim: Who was this prehistoric person?

Jad: Who was this guy?

Jim: Where'd he come from?

Andy: Was he a scout? Was he a traveler?

Jim: Where was he going?

Andy: How did he fall?

Jim: How had he died?

Andy: Was it a storm that took him?

Jim: What was he doing so high in the mountains?

Andy: Yes, but when we found him there really wasn't any way to answer these kinds of questions, all you got was wild speculation. This is where it becomes more than a story about an ancient dead guy. Over the past what 22 years, since he's been found, all these researchers keep coming back to Ötzi, and they've gathered just enough little pieces of evidence that when you put it all together, what you get is this surprisingly intimate look at this one real dude who lived 5,300 years ago. For our purposes, the first piece of that puzzle falls into place on a summer's day in 2001, when a radiologist named Dr. Paul Gossner is staring at a CT scan.

Jad: Basically a 3D X-ray of Ötzi chest.

Andy: Maybe for the umpteenth time, for the thousandth time.

Jad: When suddenly-

Andy: - he notices something unusual-

Jad: - right up by Ötzi's shoulder blade.

Andy: In the left scapular.

Jim: What does he notice?

Jad: He finds an arrowhead-

Andy: -lodged in the shoulder blade. I think it was hard to see because it's stone, not metal. If it was metal, they would've picked it up right away.

Jad: Is this meaning that this is a possible murder?

Andy: That's right. The whole thing blows up to a full-scale murder mystery.

Albert Zinc: From that moment on, we knew that he was shot with an arrow, and then it all started the research about--

Jim: That's Albert Zinc, he's actually the top scientist in charge of Ötzi these days.

Albert: What we do is like doing a crime scene investigation. We try to put together--

Andy: Not too long after Gossner spotted that arrowhead. Zinc and his team, they take Ötzi, they actually put him into an ambulance, rush him as fast they can to a hospital, trying to make sure that he doesn't thaw, and they put him into a higher resolution full-body CT scan.

Jad: The plot thickens further. We find severe abdominal wounds and ribs fractures.

Andy: Things that before may have come across as 5,000-year-old wear and tear-

Albert: There's an orbital fracture of the cranium.

Andy: -now it's like we're seeing them with new eyes.

Albert: His head is busted.

Jad: Not only that,

Jim: his right palm is very badly cut. It's very deep.

Jad: How deep?

Andy: It's so deep that there's cuts in the underlying bones.

Jim: Some pathologists say it's a defensive wound.

Andy: A wound that comes from a fight.

Jim: He held his right hand up and he got slashed on his right palm.

Andy: In trying to piece together what happened, one of the questions that scientists like Albert Zinc asked was like, "This cut on his hand was it a-"

Albert: "-Fresh wound or this was already a healing wound?"

Andy: How much time had passed between when he got the cut and when he died?

Albert: We took a little tissue piece out of the wound.

Andy: They rehydrated it, they slice it up with lasers.

Albert: We made little slices and we have a look at them at the microscope.

Andy: They could see evidence that when he died, the blood from this wound was just starting to clot, but that it had not yet formed a scab when he died, which told them that this attack-

Albert: This must be a wound that happened already three or four days before he died.

Andy: Which added another question to the list, what happened in those last three or four days between the time he got cut and the time he died?

Jim: I think this is the most fascinating thing of all about Ötzi.

Jad: Jim told us, luckily for scientists,

Jim: his intestines are all there.

Jad: To the trained eye, your intestines,

Jim: it's like a map and a diary.

Jad: A diary?

Jim: Yes, a diary.

Jad: In what way?

Jim: If there's any food in your stomach, it's less than four hours old.

Jad: Which would probably be your last meal?

Jim: The stuff in an intermediate position, like the colon, is between a few hours old and a few days old.

Jad: Your last few meals.

Jim: If you can get samples from all these and look at the content, you can deduce all sorts of things.

Andy: One small problem. If you've got a 5,000-year-old mummy on your hands, you can't exactly just cut them open. Jim and his team, what they did is they snaked some fancy equipment up his butt and started rooting around.

Jim: I didn't do that. You appreciate I'm a botanist, I'm not a medic.

Andy: Someone else from his team did that. In any case, they got up in there, and first of all, they couldn't find the stomach, but they did pull out samples from the rest of his guts, and they found-

Jim: Pollen.

Andy: Pollen. Actually two kinds of pollen, one from,

Jad: from the fresh flowers of the hop-hornbeam.

Andy: A tree that blooms down in the Valley, and Connor for pollen, a second pollen from high altitude evergreen trees. You've got the high mountain firs in the deciduous trees of the Valley of the low places, you've got the hornbeam. Both of these kinds of pollen were found in Ötzi's gut. Probably because he drank some water, which contained the pollen, but here's the key. The pollen from the Valley, it's sandwiched in between these two layers of mountain pollen. That implies an order. Ötzi must have first ingested the pine pollen, then the horns beam, and then the pine pollen again, and that suggests.

Jim: About two days or so before he died, he was high up in hills.

Jad: Drinking pollen-laded water, high above.

Jim: Then he was very low down below the tree line.

Jad: Drinking pollen-laded water down below.

Jim: Then he came back up again to meet his end.

Andy: Taking all that and a couple other pieces of research, here is what we think happened to Ötzi in his last days. We know that it would have been summertime.

Jim: Probably June.

Andy: Because that horn's beam pollen in his gut, only blooms in the early summertime, in June.

Jim: For whatever reason.

Andy: Maybe he's hunting, maybe he's looking for copper, we don't know, but we do know-

Jim: He's high up in the mountains.

Jad: Well above the tree line.

Jim: Then he goes back down to his village.

Andy: Which we believe was South of the mountain because certain chemicals in the local water were also found in Ötzi's teeth and bones. Anyway, it was not a short walk home.

Jim: It's a long way down, it's 5,000, 6,000 feet we're talking about.

Andy: Then we know that within the span of about 24 hours.

Jim: Something happens in his village.

Andy: Something violent.

Jad: Maybe his people were fighting with other people when he got there.

Andy: The details are a little blurry, but it is clear that he was attacked, that he put his right hand up to defend himself, and that he gets that cut.

Jim: It's very deep, it's very bloody, it's very painful. Shortly after that event, he bends down and picks up a clump of [unintelligible 00:15:36]

Andy: Jim actually found that [unintelligible 00:15:38] mass on Ötzi, and he says that it's-

Jim: It's mildly antiseptic.

Andy: Anyway, Ötzi, he heads back up the mountain.

Jim: He goes back up again, perhaps pursued by somebody or people, plural.

Andy: We think that maybe he was in a hurry because-

Jim: -of 14 arrows-

Andy: -that he was carrying-

Jim: -only two had flint tips and feathers, and the other 12 were useless.

Jad: Which suggests a frantic state. You've got a guy who's running, bleeding and he's busily curving his arrows.

Andy: Curving as he runs, and for about a day-

Jim: -maybe a day and a half-

Andy: -he's running a lot. We know that he runs over 12 miles, that he gets up above 10,000 feet above sea level, managing to evade, whoever it is that's coming after him, but then--

Jim: The fatal arrow shot.

Andy: This is the official report from the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology. We can see that the point of the arrow tore a hole in the artery beneath his left collarbone, which led to a massive hematoma, which bled into the thorax, cavity, which in turn caused cardiac arrest and sudden death.

Jad: He bled to death.

Jim: He would have died in less than half an hour.

Jad: Really?

Jim: He would have died in 20 minutes perhaps.

Andy: According to a lot of researchers, whoever killed Ötzi, came over, pulled the arrow shaft out of Ötzi's back, picked up a big stone, and bashed his head in. Then within about an hour, maybe two, his body would have been completely covered in snow. Then within a month or so, that snow would have become ice. Then when the next summer came around, that ice would have thawed out just enough to allow a little sunlight to come through. The next winter, he would have froze again, following summer thawed a little bit and then froze again and then thawed.

Here's why that's important, bodies that are completely frozen deteriorate. Those periods of thaw kept him from deteriorating. You had this perfect mixture throughout all these years, a season of snow, a season of ice, and then, a thaw, and then a snow and then an ice, and then a thaw. Just think about it, year in and year out. Throughout the building of the pyramids, the rise and fall of Rome, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, all of this time, Ötzi was there in that spot, just a few feet away from where he was murdered, until 1991, when a couple of German hikers decided to head off the trail.

Albert: We have forensic proof of his suffering. We have forensic proof of his hunger. We have forensic evidence that he was cold. We have all of this undeniable, irrefutable forensic evidence that this man was a living human being who was tormented and was enduring with incredible tenacity.

Andy: In the last few years, scientists have still been at it. They've still been poking at Ötzi, trying to figure out, who was this guy, not just who might have been, but who was he really?

Jad: I think there's a hope that something will be found, which will say yes, he was a hero. Yes, he was a King. Yes, he was a father. I think there's this hunger on the part of the researchers to find something beyond the biology, beyond the molecular chemistry, to find some sense of the humanity.

Jad: In the years, since we spoke with Jim Dixon Scientist, did find something which, for Aaron, at least does give him that sense.

Andy: In 2010.

Jad: They found Ötzi's stomach, which Jim and his team, they couldn't find because it was-

Andy: Tucked deep up under his rib cage, pressed up against his heart. They find the stomach.

Jad: Inside-

Andy: -one and a half pounds of undigested goat meat and bread in his belly.

Jad: His last meal.

Andy: This was eaten on the day of his death.

Jad: Maybe just an hour before he died.

Andy: It was a huge feast.

Jad: For Aaron imagining Ötzi's sitting at that fire right before he died, that's what did it.

Andy: Oh, I can see it. He's eating. He cooked his food. We have proof he cooked the meat and he sat down and it must've taken time, it took at least an hour or two. Like, I can feel it I'm in the cave. I'm by the fire.

Jad: That's what brought him back.

Robert: So you're saying then that some hours before he had somehow the time to build a fire, catch or acquire or carry a fairly substantial meal and sit and eat it somewhat at rest. He must not have known what was coming was coming.

Andy: Maybe he knew. Maybe he had found some resolution around it, but we have forensic proof that for this brief moment in time, the Alpine ice man felt safe enough to stew his meat and his bread and sit by the fire and eat his dinner.

[music]

?Soren: Before we go two brief notes, first, Robert and Jad will be back from our live show tour by our next podcast. If you want to see them this week in either Portland or Seattle, go to our website, radiolab.org/live. Second, a friend of the show, a novelist named Stefan Blackie. He heard about this guy Ötzi, got obsessed, but unlike Brad Pitt, instead of getting a tattoo, he wrote a fictional piece that tries to answer some of those remaining questions, like, why was Ötzi pursued? Who was after him? Why did they kill him? You'll soon be able to find that piece along with a lot of other great stuff on our website, radiolab.org. Of course, thanks for listening.

 

 

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