December 8, 2008
Possibly the world’s most ancient celebrity has now had his dinner described down to the very last fibrils of moss. Or mosses, to be exact. Scientists have found six species in the intestinal tract of Ötzi, the 5,200-year-old “iceman” who was discovered frozen into a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991.
Even in mummy terms, 52 centuries is old. Ötzi is as old or older than the famous Egyptian mummies, despite having been preserved by little more than coincidence and cold weather. He was found half-encased in ice at 11,000 feet elevation, still dressed in grasses and furs and carrying an axe of nearly pure copper. This man was alive before bronze was invented.
His incredible degree of preservation has allowed scientists to follow Ötzi’s prehistoric lifestyle like a gang of paparazzi. The forensic techniques they’ve brought to bear hint at bizarre CSI storylines yet to be scripted. From bone details, pollen grains, DNA molecules, isotopes in his teeth, and an ominous arrowhead lodged in his shoulder, we know that Ötzi grew up about 35 miles south of where he died, at 46, probably herded sheep in the high country, was a better hiker than his contemporaries, got into a serious fight with some tribesmen, fled through forests of hornbeam, died from his wounds, and ultimately left no descendants in modern Europe.
As someone who is often at a loss when confronted by tracks in new-fallen snow, I just love to read about people who can see this kind of detail across five millennia.
And then of course there’s the part we’re interested in on this blog: the iceman’s food. From the new research, it looks like you won’t need to add mosses to your favorite Copper Age recipes. Mosses have nearly zero nutritive value, don’t taste of much, and are nearly universally ignored as people food. Ötzi probably consumed them incidentally. But how?
In those days before water filters, several species probably came from the water he drank. But two species are more tantalizing. One type was probably used to wrap food, as kind of an ancient sandwich baggie. Researchers found bits of it throughout Ötzi’s intestine; in the wild it forms mats on rocks, seemingly perfect for making wrapping material. The other species, a type of peat moss, is acidic enough to have been useful as a traditional medicinal compress to fight infections. Ötzi probably spent his last desperate hours clutching the moss to his arrow wound – and not bothering to scrub his hands clean when he ate.
The mosses are actually the last of the iceman’s gut contents to be analyzed by researchers – previous work had already divined the main ingredients of the man’s last two meals. The food included a primitive kind of wheat (possibly made into bread), plum-like fruits called sloes, two kinds of red meat (ibex and red deer), and copious amounts of charcoal indicating he’d cooked over open flame. Which means, I guess, that now we know what Ötzi’s answer to Amanda’s question would have been.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.