DNA reveals how the Italian Iceman went down fighting

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The Independent Online

Italy's prehistoric Iceman was murdered by an arrow in the back, despite the efforts of a companion to save him. But although he apparently died fleeing from a skirmish, he did not give up without a fight. He bore traces of the blood of four other men on his weapons and clothes, three of whom he had killed or wounded.

These are among the startling findings of Dr Tom Loy of Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia, published this week after analysis of blood traces found on the 5,300-year- old mummy, which was dug out of the Alpine ice 12 years ago.

Dr Loy, studying northern Italy's famous mummy for the first time in 10 years, said yesterday: "There is DNA from the blood of four different individuals on the equipment he is carrying: one from the back of his cloak, one from his knife blade and two others on his arrowheads."

By far the oldest mummy unearthed - those of ancient Egypt are 1,000 years younger - Ötzi, as he is known, was discovered by a couple climbing in the high peaks of Italy's South Tyrol region, near the Austrian border. He has yielded a huge amount of information about the life of man in the Alps during the Copper Age. Not only his body but his clothing, weapons, crude medical kit and other equipment were all intact.

Ötzi wore a goatskin loincloth, leather leggings, a goatskin coat and a cloak of grass stitched together with animal sinews. On his head he wore a bearskin cap and on his feet shoes of leather, stuffed with grass to keep his feet warm. On the downside he had three broken ribs, dysentery, a nasty cut on his hand, and fleas. Critically, Ötzi also had a flint arrowhead embedded in his back.

Until two years ago it was believed that Ötzi froze to death in a snowstorm. But in 2001, close examination of X-rays of the corpse revealed that a flint-headed arrow had torn through his shoulder blade, stopping an inch from his left lung. The arrowhead remained there, causing a wound that, left untreated, would have resulted in his death.

The new analysis by Dr Loy of blood traces found on the blade of Ötzi's dagger, on an arrowhead and a broken arrow shaft in his birch-bark quiver and at four places on his leather coat reveal mitochondrial DNA on each. Each sample is different, indicating conclusively that Ötzi carried traces of the blood of four different people.

Dr Loy said: "We spent a lot of time trying to work out reasonable alternative explanations [for the presence of the blood of others]. The idea we came up with most of the time was border skirmishing. Our theory was that he had been in a skirmish and was trying to get home."

The picture we are left with is of Ötzi, having made it to the icy heights of the Schnalstal glacier with his companion - and with the remains of meals of venison and ibex still in his gut - running into trouble. He attacked his adversaries with his flint-bladed dagger (still clasped in his hand when he was found in 1991), but received a nasty wound to the same hand, which immobilised two fingers.

He and his friend beat a retreat but Ötzi took a fatal hit in the back. The friend attempted to pull out the arrow but snapped it at the haft, and Ötzi died in the snow of his injury.

But what of the friend? What of the assailants? The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology - Ötzi's final resting place - is organising an expedition into the high passes to look for more remains at the end of the month. With the heatwave melting ancient icefields never before exposed, the chances of climbers stumbling on another sensational discovery have never been better.