Cometh to the Ice Man

Alps: More than 5,000 years ago, a late Stone Age man lay down to die in the mountains. Now the frozen wanderer lives on as a tourist attraction

Destination: Europe

March 05, 2000|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,Dallas Morning News

On a snowy afternoon, on the edge of an Alpine ridge on the Italy-Austria border, a silhouette materializes in the mist: a concrete obelisk marking the place where a man lay down to die 5,300 years ago.

Today's uncomfortable weather hints at conditions the man may have faced in his final hours. Although no one can be certain, it is believed he was surprised by a storm and sought refuge in a small gully. He leaned his backpack against a rock and put his head on a stone pillow to wait for the weather to clear. He never awoke.

In 1991, when two German hikers discovered his body frozen in a glacier at 10,400 feet above sea level, the find created a worldwide sensation. Here was a flesh-and-blood link with the Copper Age. Because his clothing and equipment were preserved, it was possible to see how people dressed and lived more than five millenniums ago, when Stone Age man was beginning to develop metal tools.

It would be like finding a present-day camper thousands of years from now and discovering his Gore-Tex jacket, plastic cooler and Swiss Army knife.

In the last nine years, the frozen Alpine man has been the object of intense research. We now know his last meal: mountain goat, plums and hard wheat crackers. We know he was tattooed and at 46 a relative ancient, suffering from arthritis and chronic diarrhea.

He carried weapons, medicine and a simple religious icon. Beyond that, our knowledge is sketchy. Scientists believe he may have been a shepherd caught in a storm. Others think he was a great leader -- his ax and bearskin cap might suggest he was a village chief or priest.

His original name lost to the ages, he has a new one: Otzi (pronounced OAT-see), in honor of his final resting place, the Otztal Alps, a region on the Italy-Austria border now popular with skiers and hikers.

In the last year or so, this frozen wanderer has found new life as a tourist attraction. In nearby Bolzano, Italy, his image has been preserved in chocolate and printed on T-shirts and wine bottles. Replicas of his hat are available, as is Otzi gelato -- a nutty, chocolate caramel ice cream. His body is displayed in a refrigerated case in a new city museum.

Border skirmishes

That Otzi now resides in Bolzano, 30 miles from his death site, is one of the amazing stories associated with the find. When the body was discovered, the Italians wanted nothing to do with it. Dozens of hikers die every year in Alpine accidents, although the bodies sometimes don't turn up for decades. Authorities searched the records and at first thought Otzi was a music teacher who disappeared in 1938.

The Austrians who retrieved the body from the remote spot didn't do such a great job themselves. They used a jackhammer to free Otzi from the ice, which could account for his broken ribs and the wounds on his side. The workers also scattered and destroyed some of his belongings. But his copper ax so intrigued the Austrians that word soon reached the University of Innsbruck. That's where an astonished professor gave his initial opinion. This wasn't a lost hiker, a World War I soldier or even a medieval wanderer. He was a man who lived before the creation of the pyramids or Stonehenge.

"I was very skeptical. I thought that couldn't be," said Alois Pirpamer, my guide to the Otzi site, who saw the body still frozen in place and helped recover some of his possessions.

Pirpamer owns a hotel and the Alpine hikers hut that served as a command post for the recovery operation and later archaeological digs. The hut is once again a peaceful place for hikers seeking a hot meal and a warm bed. But in the weeks after the find, it was besieged by journalists, scientists and fortune hunters.

The visitors included Italian and Austrian soldiers, who guarded the site and eyed each other across the border.

"Things were a little crazy," said Pirpamer, a tall, white-haired man of 62 and the former president of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations.

Later archaeological digs indicated that Otzi was preserved because he had chosen a fortunate place to die. His body was found in a gully in an area usually covered by ice. His corpse quickly froze and was eventually buried under more than 60 feet of snow. Although a glacier passed over the area, his body was protected by the gully. The freeze-dried corpse emerged thousands of years later after a warm winter and a freak weather pattern brought hot Sahara winds from Africa into the Alps.

Surveyors eventually ruled that the death site was 101 yards inside Italy. But Austria didn't give up Otzi easily. Even his tattoos, which marked sites of bone deterioration and may indicate the use of acupuncture to treat arthritis, entered the fray.

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