Body in glacier is older than first believed Studies date find to Neolithic period

January 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

VIENNA, Austria -- The mummified man discovered in a melting Alpine glacier last September is older than first believed, dating from the late Neolithic rather than the Early Bronze age, scientists and historians say.

Two independent tests of radiocarbon dates have been conducted on pieces of grass from a woven mat found with the man. They show he died at least 4,600 years ago, or about 2,600 B.C., said Sigmar Bortenschlager, director of the Institute of Botany at the University of Innsbruck, which commissioned the datings.

The two datings, whose results varied by about 20 years, were done at laboratories in Uppsala, Sweden, and in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

Historians then discovered that an ax found with the man is of nearly pure copper, not bronze, as first believed, said Markus Egg, a prehistorian from the Romisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany, where the man's equipment being studied.

"Axes of pure copper were no longer used in the Bronze Age," Mr. Egg said.

Indeed, the main technological development around 2000 B.C. in Central Europe was that man learned how to make bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, both of which are found in nature.

Bronze is harder and more useful than copper, and its melting temperature is lower, making it easier to work.

The man was first believed to be from the Early Bronze age because the ax is of a style common to that time.

But Mr. Egg said the style was also used in the Neolithic Age and had been found throughout Europe.

Although the two dating tests are not disputed, scientists say pieces of the body, which is being kept in Innsbruck, will also be dated at laboratories in Zurich and at Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England.

Examination of the body, which is the oldest naturally preserved corpse ever found, has been stalled because of a dispute over its ownership.

Geographers determined in October that the man, who was discovered at 10,500 feet by mountain climbers on the Similaun glacier, was actually on Italian territory. Werner Platzer, director of the Anatomy Institute at the University of Innsbruck, said he expected that the University of Innsbruck would obtain the right to conduct research on the body.

Archaeologists and other scientists from many countries are expected to be involved in the research when it gets under way early this year, Mr. Platzer said.

The objects found with the man, including a bow, quiver and arrows, a flintstone knife, a flint lighter and kindling in a leather pouch, are being cleaned and studied by Mr. Egg's team at Mainz.

About 30 scientists from Germany, Austria, Sweden, France and Switzerland are taking part in the studies, Mr. Egg said.

Meanwhile, evidence now suggests that the man was a shepherd who was caught in a snowstorm on his way over the mountains.

"Not one arrow was prepared for shooting," said Mr. Egg, who noted that a hunter would most likely have been ready to fire his weapon. "This means that he didn't feel threatened."

But he added that the man had with him all the necessary arrowheads and feathers and a type of putty to attach them to the arrow's shaft.

Botanists say meadows as high as 9,200 feet in two valleys nearest to where the man was found have been used for grazing sheep and goats for 5,000 years.

But until now, there had never been any material remains of the people who worked and lived there during the summer, when the herds were brought up from the valleys to graze, said Mr. Bortenschlager, who hopes that analysis of the plants and pollen found on and in the man will show how long he had been up so high in the mountains.

For glaciologists, a major question is how the man's body could have been preserved under a glacier for nearly 5,000 years, said Gernot Pazelt, a professor at the Institute for Alpine Research at the University of Innsbruck.

He said the area above the narrow trench in which the body was discovered was vulnerable to wind and probably never had more than 75 feet of snow on top of it, which was not heavy enough to crush the corpse.

In addition, the trench trapped the man and the ice so it did not move along with the glacier as it descended the mountain.

"It was an absolutely unique position," said Mr. Pazelt, who noted that the man could have been with companions who died on spots that did not allow their bodies to survive the tremendous weight and pressure of the glacier.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.