30 years of the glacier mummy: how did Ötzi die?

Ein the damp, cold wind, clouds are drifting over the Tisenjoch. Exactly the right atmosphere, one might think, to visit the place where 30 years ago a completely preserved mummy, the upper body melted from the ice, was found by hikers on this transition between the North Tyrolean Ötztal and the South Tyrolean Schnalstal. “Ötzi”, as the 5,300-year-old deceased was christened by Austrian journalists, was a sensation and it still is today. The find from the late Neolithic is still a source of new knowledge for paleontologists, archaeologists, physicians, mummy researchers, microbiologists and other scientific disciplines. At the same time, it is more than ever an object of lucrative marketing. It is obvious that interests are sometimes in conflict with one another.

There are – just a small selection as an example – sporting events such as the Ötzi Alpin Marathon, the Ötzi Trail Run and the Ötztaler Cycle Marathon, which has been around for 40 years, but has long been known as “the Ötzi”. The brand has also found its way into the entertainment industry. One musician calls himself DJ Ötzi. There is a pretty solid feature film about the life and death of the “Ice Man”. Umhausen in the Ötztal has a museum-like “Ötzi village” that has up to 50,000 visitors a year. Every year as many as 300,000 (if Corona does not shut everything down) visit the mummy itself, which is exhibited in a glass case in the archeology museum of the South Tyrolean capital Bolzano. Because the former bank building is too small for the influx, there is currently heated argument about a successor solution.

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A music professor from Verona?

In contrast, the beginnings were bumpy. When the mountain hikers Helmut and Erika Simon from Nuremberg saw the human body sticking out of the ice on September 19, 1991 at an altitude of about 3200 meters, they reported this to the landlord of the nearby Similaunhütte, who in turn notified the police in Sölden in the Austrian Ötztal. Copies of the first police reports can be seen in the museum in Umhausen: At first one thought of the victim of an “alpine accident that happened many years ago”, perhaps a music professor from Verona who was reported as “missing” in 1938. No, he was buried in 1952, according to a handwritten supplement. Source: Carabinieri.

The Italian police were involved because the dead man was almost exactly on the border between the two countries. At first, the Italian side shrugged, so to speak, that the Austrians believed he was on their side and that they were responsible for the rescue. When the mummy became famous, it was transferred to Bolzano in 1997 after a long dispute. The Simons also had to fight for their right to be considered the finder of “Ötzi”. Finally, Erika Simon (her husband himself tragically died in an alpine accident) received a reward from the state of South Tyrol.


In 2010, scientists examined the 5000 year old glacier mummy “Ötzi” and took samples of the stomach contents.
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Image: dpa

Because they were still thinking of a recent accident victim when they were being rescued, they proceeded quite brutally, cutting the mummy free with pimples and breaking limbs. The Innsbruck archaeologist Walter Leitner, who was not yet involved at the time, says: “If archaeologists had been there, it would have been clear that the situation should be cut out of the ice en bloc. The recovery itself was not exactly professional either. After all, an autopsy that was already planned or even the planned cremation did not take place, otherwise one would have to deal with other topics today.

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