Solving the mystery of Ötzi’s death, the 5,000 year old iceman

Using fancy medical imaging techniques, like computed tomography (CT) scans, Frank Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, reinvestigated the cause of the iceman, Ötzi’s death.

CT scans allow medical professionals, and in this case a multidisciplinary team of investigators, to analyze a body without invasive surgery. CT scans take a whole lot of 2-D X-rays around a single axis and a computer takes these images and compiles them in order to generate a 3-D image of the internals of the object. 3-D reconstruction of Ötzi’s shoulder girdle and surrounding areasThe image to your right is the 3-D reconstruction of Ötzi’s shoulder girdle and surrounding areas.

Rühli worked in collaboration with Eduard Egarter Vigl of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, as well as Patrizia Pernter and Paul Gostner from the Department of Radiology at General Hospital Bolzano and published their findings in March, when Carl shared this news with us.

The press is just now running the conclusions that the team found and originally published in the Journal of Archaeological Science,

“lesion of a close-to-the-shoulder artery has been found… [the] lesion of the dorsal wall of the left subclavian artery, the artery underneath the clavicle, caused by an earlier, already-detected arrowhead that remains in the back. In addition, a large haematoma [blood clot] could be visualized in the surrounding tissue. By incorporating historic as well as modern data on the survival ship of such a severe lesion, the scientists concluded that the Iceman died within a short time due to this lesion.”

Image of Otzi’s Blood ClotThe image of the blood clot they found is also to your right, if you want, click on the image to get an in depth caption describing what you should be seeing. In the abstract, the researchers conclude the following in their own words,

“As the main pathologic finding, the left dorsal subclavian artery contures shows a 13 mm-long part where the vessel wall is damaged and a 3 mm-long irregular pseudo-aneurysm – a typical complication of a laceration of the subclavian artery. In the surrounding soft tissue a large haematoma is visible. Historic records highlight the fatal destiny of subclavian artery injuries e.g. due to massive active bleeding and shock-related cardiac arrest. Therefore, the Iceman’s cause of death by an arrowhead lacerating among others the left subclavian artery and leading to a deadly hemorrhagic shock can be now postulated with almost complete certainty, especially when taking the environmental (3’210 meters above sea level) and historic (5’300 BP) settings into account.”

I consider this another excellent example of a multidisciplinary approach to solving a archaeological mystery. This sorta research brought the best of forensic anthropology, anatomy and medical technology, into good ole archaeology. And to make it all the much better, it was non-invasive!

One last little tid bit of extra information before I let you leave this Sunday morning, Rühli is the project leader of the Swiss Mummy Project. This project aims to,

“use non-invasive methods to gain information on life, death and after-death alterations (e.g., embalming-related changes) on historic mummies. To achieve this, mostly radiological examination techniques such as CT are used. The work of the Swiss Mummy Project is funded by the Forschungskredit (research fund) of the University of Zurich as well as by collaborations with Siemens Medical Solutions, Zuse-Institute Berlin and the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim.”

Also, you may also be interested to read Afarensis‘ take on this, and my 2006 discussion on the iceman’s infertility.

5 thoughts on “Solving the mystery of Ötzi’s death, the 5,000 year old iceman

  1. hehe… When I saw the recent news at the BBC site, I wanted to make a post on their blog along the lines of “you could have heard it first here…” or something similar.

  2. Oh that woulda been so cool Carl, do you have the link to the BBC blog post on it? You should do that, I imported your original report from the old site to the new one.

    Many kudos for hopping on top of this news many months ago. I kinda forgot about Ötzi since then. It seems like he’ll be debuting the cover of National Geographic soon!

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