Curse of the Oetzi the Iceman strikes again
The death of a molecular biologist, Tom Loy, is the seventh to be connected with a Stone Age cadaver found entombed in an alpine glacier in 1991.
Saturday 05 November 2005
These were strange, often accidental deaths of people who had come into close contact with the frozen corpse, dubbed Oetzi. There was talk of a curse. Could it be that the Iceman was angry at being disturbed from his 53 century-long slumber?
Yesterday it was revealed that Oetzi (found in the Oetzal Alps) had claimed his seventh "victim": an Australian-based scientist, Tom Loy, who carried out ground-breaking DNA analysis on the corpse. His colleagues are in shock, his family bereft. And even those who disparage curses as superstitious nonsense are experiencing, perhaps, the tiniest of shivers.
Dr Loy was 63, a Californian-born molecular biologist who joined the University of Queensland a decade ago after gaining a doctorate from the Australian National University in Canberra. He headed a team that minutely studied Oetzi, together with his prehistoric tools and weapons.
Helmut and Erika Simon, a German couple who were keen mountaineers, had stumbled across the cadaver, perfectly preserved, wearing a woven grass cloak, goatskin leggings and bearskin hat. Nearby were a bow and arrows, a stone-tipped knife, an antler-skinning tool and a copper-headed axe. Oetzi had died, clearly, while out hunting. Early theories suggested he perished after an accident, alone.
Dr Loy's research soon debunked that idea. He and his team identified four different types of blood on Oetzi's clothes and tools, all belonging to other people. He surmised that the Iceman had been with a comrade, and had died after a territorial battle with rivals. Possibly he had carried a wounded companion some distance, before depositing his tools and weapons and lying down to die.
Dr Loy humanised our ancient ancestor, endowing him with a personality and tracing the last moments before his demise. The Californian won international acclaim for his work, which was the subject of several television documentaries.
A fortnight ago, he was found dead at his home in Brisbane. It was only yesterday, ahead of a memorial service on Monday, that the news emerged.
His brother, Gareth, who has travelled to Australia for the service, told The Australian newspaper that an autopsy had proved inconclusive. The coroner ruled out foul play, stating that he had died of natural causes, or an accident, or both.
Gareth Loy, however, said his brother had not been a well man. Twelve years ago, just after starting work on the Oetzi project, he had been diagnosed as suffering from a hereditary condition that caused his blood to clot. Asked about the issue of a curse, Mr Loy said that it had never been a subject of discussion between them.
Academics, of course, pour scorn on such notions. Tom Loy's colleagues at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience refused to comment yesterday. But one university source said staff were deeply upset, not only by his death, but by all the speculation about a curse.
"They feel that it trivialises his death, and does not do justice to his life and work," said the source. "He was a brilliant academic, and that is how his colleagues want to remember him."
But for others, the link between Mr Loy's death and that of other men associated with Oetzi is irresistible. Mr Simon, 67, met a strikingly similar end to the man whom he chanced across in an icy tomb in northern Italy, near the Austrian border. A retired caretaker from Nuremberg, he was hiking through the snow with his wife when they made the historic find in September 1991. But the event came to haunt the couple, for they grew embittered by the world's failure to recognise the role that they played, and to recompense them financially.
In October last year, Mr Simon went walking in Austria, barely 100 miles from the spot where he encountered Oetzi. He failed to return and was found dead eight days later, having apparently fallen 300ft during a freak blizzard.
An hour after Mr Simon's funeral, Dieter Warnecke, the head of the mountain rescue team dispatched to look for him, died of a heart attack. Mr Warnecke was 45 and, according to his family, perfectly fit.
The first "victim" of the curse, though, was Rainer Henn, 64, a forensic pathologist who picked up the cadaver with his bare hands and placed it in a body bag. Dr Henn died in a head-on collision in 1992 while on his way to a conference where he planned to present new findings on the remains.
Not long afterwards Kurt Fritz, a mountaineer who guided Dr Henn to the Iceman and was one of the first people to gaze upon his face, died in an avalanche. An experienced climber who knew the region intimately, he was the only member of his party to be struck by the falling rocks.
Rainer Hölz, 47, an Austrian journalist, exclusively filmed the removal of the body from its cocoon of ice, making an hour-long documentary that was shown around the world. A few months later he died of a brain tumour.
Before Dr Loy, the most recent "victim" was Konrad Spindler, an Austrian archeologist and leading expert on the Iceman. Spindler had scoffed at suggestions of a curse, declaring: "I think it's a load of rubbish. It is all a media hype. The next thing you will be saying I will be next." He died last April, aged 66, of complications from multiple sclerosis.
Dr Loy was on the brink of completing a book about his work on Oetzi, according to colleagues. His studies had enabled him to piece together a version of events leading up to the Stone Age man's death.
Oetzi was shot in the back with a flint arrow; he also had cuts on his hands, wrists and rib-cage. Dr Loy concluded from blood samples on an arrow that he might have killed two of his assailants and retrieved it to fire again.
In an interview a few years ago, he said: "On the basis of all my examinations, Oetzi's speciality was hunting the high alpine passes for ibex [wild goat] and possibly chamois, which would have taken him into boundary conditions where other people would have disputed the territory.
"I suspect that as he realised his life was ending, he stopped, put his gear down, stacked it neatly against a rock wall and lay down and expired. He didn't keel over, although he was probably tired, exhausted and hurt like hell."
Controversy surrounded the cadaver from the start. After the Simons found it in the melting glacier, its head and shoulder protruding from the ice, the Austrian authorities took it to Innsbruck for examination. Initial assumptions that it was a modern corpse - that of a hiker who had struck misfortune, for instance - were overturned, amid high excitement.
Italy, however, was determined to claim Oetzi for its own. The Italian authorities were convinced that his grave lay inside their border and, after the establishment of a boundary commission, he was repatriated over the Brenner Pass under armed guard. The Iceman now resides in the South Tyrol Museum in Bolzano, where he earns millions of dollars a year in entry fees.
The Simons fought for years for a share of that money. Eventually the Italian courts recognised them as the official finders, and they were awarded a settlement of £34,000. Mr Simon returned to the Alps to celebrate the legal victory, but met his death in the snowy wastes. His wife has yet to receive any of the reward money.
Their claim was disputed by a Slovenian actress, Magdalena Mohar Jarc, and a Swiss hiker, Sandra Nemeth, both of whom maintained that they came across the corpse before the Simons. Ms Nemeth said she became embroiled in a bitter row with the couple, during which she fell over the corpse. She was so determined to stake her claim, she told the courts, that she spat on it "in order to leave DNA evidence of my discovery".
Ms Jarc claimed that it was she who first saw Oetzi. She left in order to find someone to photograph him, she said, and returned with the Simons.
It has been established that Oetzi was a man of 30 to 45 years of age, who stood about 5ft 3in tall. In the past 14 years his body has been studied exhaustively by teams of scientists from around the world. They have analysed the contents of his intestines to determine his last meals, which consisted of ibex, red deer, grains and pollen. They have inspected his colon, finding that he was infested with whipworm, and fashioned replicas of his footwear, which were made of animal skin stuffed with dried grass.
Examination of his clothes has revealed the presence of fleas. The minerals in his tooth enamel have been pored over to determine his stamping-ground. At one point he was even briefly thawed to enable skin and tissue samples to be taken.
He continues to exert fascination, among laymen as well as the scientific community. And, if proponents of the curse theory are to be believed, he continues to exact some strange form of vengeance on the people closely involved with him.
Curse or coincidence? Three legends of bad luck
By Karla Adam
The inscription outside the ancient Egyptian king's tomb read: "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King." And it did. When Howard Carter found the tomb in the 1920s, he called on his wealthy patron, Lord Carnarvon, to inspect his discovery. After entering, Carnarvon died of a high fever caused by an infected mosquito bite on his cheek. As he died, the power in Cairo mysteriously failed and the city went dark.
* THE HOPE DIAMOND
The world's most famous diamond is also thought to be unlucky for those close to it. The gem was allegedly stolen by merchant Jean Baptiste Tavernier from the eye of a Hindu statue. He was later torn apart by wild dogs in Russia. Marie Antoinette was another unlucky owner. The curse also affected the Hope family, who went bankrupt. A later owner, Evelyn Walsh McLean, also suffered: her first son died in a car crash, her daughter committed suicide and her husband was declared insane.
* THE SANGORSKI CURSE
The Sangorski edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was billed as one of the world's most ornate books, but it sank with the Titanic in 1912. Six weeks later, its creator, Francis Sangorski, drowned in a bathing accident. When Stanley Bray decided to replicate the book by working from Sangorski's original prints, bad luck struck again. This time the book was obliterated in the London Blitz. A third version is now in the British Library.
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