On September 19th, 1991, some German hikers in the Italian Alps, just south of Austria found the body of a dead man protruding from a glacier. The body was intact enough for the first few folks on the scene to imagine the corpse was relatively new. In fact, the man in the ice had died five and a half thousand years earlier.
When dealing with human history its always difficult to compare the relatively short period in which we humans have made comprehensive written records of our daily lives versus the thousands of years that we have been living life with only the barest traces of evidence as to our doings. The two millennia that have passed since the Christian Era began seem like a pretty long stretch of time and yet the dead man in the ice — scientists named him Otzi because he lived in and around the Otz river valley — lived and died 5 and a half millennia ago.
1 millennium ago (that’s 1000 years) the Vikings were just getting Christianized, the Eastern Orthodox Church was reaching the height of its power, Persia and the rest of the Islamic world were experiencing a golden age of learning, combining Ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Islamic philosophic and scientific knowledge on all manner of subjects, medicine, mathematics and chemistry among them. Go back 2 millennia from now and Augustus Caesar has just died, lions were becoming extinct in their European range — from Spain to the Balkans — and Buddhism, already a healthy force in India and Ceylon was beginning to reach out to China and the Far East.
Three thousand years back brings us to the reign of king Solomon after the death of his father King David in Israel, this would have been the period in which Greek traders were adapting the phonetic alphabet of their Phoenician neighbors into what would later develop into the alphabet we use today. A further millennium back and we are in the 20th century BC — the Twelfth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt begins, and we are solidly experiencing the Bronze Age in most complex societies with glassmaking beginning to show itself as well. Another thousand years back takes us to the very beginnings of the Bronze Age, introducing the very first Pharaohs of Egypt and the Sumerian hero-king Gilgamesh. Stonehenge was at this point a large circular ditch with 86 wooden posts. And 500 years or so before that, Otzi died with an arrow in his back in the Italian Alps.
Otzi lived in what is sometimes called the Chalcolithic Age: the period in which humans were first learning to shape and craft softer metals like copper. Otzi was carrying a pretty impressive treasure with him, a hand axe with a copper head. None of the other tools and weapons he had on him had any metal in them, other sharp points were flint, bone and antler. His clothes and shoes were made of furs, different animal skins and woven grasses, sewn together with animal sinew and plant fibers.
Scientists have done just about every test you can possibly imagine on Otzi’s body, they’ve established that he had an intestinal parasite as well as whipworm and Lyme’s disease. They note that his last meals included goat meat, deer meet, berries, some kind of bread made of wheat, and dried blackthorn plums. His teeth were bad, sort of a comment on the high carbohydrate diet his people seem to have lived on — agriculture was not a new concept in the world, the sort of wheat Otzi had been eating had been grown in Mesopotamia since 10,000 BC, but the area Otzi lived in may have been pretty new to farming (by new I mean only a millennia or two…) Blood work indicates that Otzi was lactose intolerant suggesting that although he may have been a herdsman, dairying had not been long practiced among his people.
Otzi had tattoos! Incised into his skin, rather than poked there with needles, Otzi had a number of lines and crosses tattooed onto parts of his body, parts that likely hurt him due to general wear and tear. It is thought that the soot used as an ink was meant as a medicine to relieve pain in his lower back, knee joints and ankles — demonstrating the earliest known use of acupuncture. Otzi was carrying a species of mushroom with him looped on a leather thong, apparently as a sort of Neolithic first aid kit — the mushroom is credited with antiseptic properties. As well, from evidence in his stomach contents he seems to have been using six types of moss for purposes that seem medicinal, as they wouldn’t really have made the tastiest salad.
The music I have made this week is a sort of absentee funeral service, performed in as Chalcolithic a style as I could manage. The words are all from Akkadian inscriptions that describe the descent of the goddess Ishtar into the underworld, these inscriptions were from much later than Otzi’s time, but the Akkadians had inherited a great deal of religious lore — including their goddess Ishtar — from their older neighbors, the Sumerians, who were active in Chalcolithic times. If you would like to hear some of these texts read by scholars at the University of London, check out: http://www.soas.ac.uk/baplar/recordings/
I am not dwelling on the issue of Otzi’s cause of death, but most recent thinking on that topic returns a verdict of murder — if you want to hear more, let me I direct you to an NPR Radiolab podcast on the subject: http://www.radiolab.org/story/ice-cold-case/.