It was disturbing to gaze into the vacant eyes of a 5500-year-old man who could possibly be one of my most distant ancestors.
Otzi, as he is known after the location where he turned up, is sleeping in the northern Italian city of Bolzano between Verona and the Brenner Pass. But Otzi doesn’t rest in peace because he was a murder victim in a case that will never be solved, and because some scientist or another is always wanting to study him or check on his health. It wasn’t good at the time of death – at about age 46 he was arthritic, infested with whipworms, was lactose intolerant, suffered from Lyme disease and arteriosclerosis. On the other hand he didn’t have tooth cavities. Currently the concerns involve worries that fungus will eventually eat into the body and destroy it.
The area of the South Tyrol in the northern part of Italy was in Austria before the end of World War I and is still heavily German in culture. It is one of the most beautiful regions – full of vineyards spilling down the slopes, clear rivers and streams and many winter and summer resorts. We were staying in the lovely town of Bressanone, or Brixen as it is known in German, when we heard about the mummy. We headed south for the short drive down to Bolzano to visit him.
Not a mummy like those in Egypt, bandage wrapped with their internal organs removed to jars, Otzi is nearly whole – except for his penis reportedly stolen when he emerged from the ice on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991.
No different than the rest of us he had jewelry – a tassel with a marble bead. He also carried two birch bark containers that may have been used for embers, and a food supply: smoked ibex meat, einkorn (like farro) and sloe berries. Along with these items were two clumps of birch fungus, an anti-bacterial compound used to heal wounds well into the 20th century.