THE ICE MAN OF THE ALPS
There are many levels of belief, from ignorance, to suspicion through doubt to certainty. And as we become more aware of the implications of our beliefs we often seek to amend them especially in the light of new evidence and experience. We can even understand our implicit belief in something, disagree with it and yet be unable to change it. And what of beliefs that appear to be so old and ingrained yet so at odds with modern life that any attempt at reconciliation is fraught with implications we neither fully understand nor can we fully accept.
5300 years ago, between the neolithic and bronze ages, in that period called by some,the Copper Age, a man, lately named Ítzi,climbed into the high mountains due north of the Mediterranean. 50 centuries later his body was discovered frozen, intact, and undisturbed in an ice field. It was recovered by highly skilled scientists and studied in with an extraordinary attention to detail.
How did he get there? What was he doing there? Where was he going? What does it matter?
If we start with the last question first, it might help us approach the first three with more purpose.
Of course pure, unexplained,visceral curiosity is the major motivator in any investigation. But there may be more to it than that.
If we can understand the basic characteristics of this man's life, what motivated him, his every day life, what he considered important, then we perhaps we can understand more about how we as a modern social community have evolved and appreciate where we still carry the traits, behaviors and beliefs of our ancestors and how our modern behaviors diverge from them.
The unique condition of this body and its associated materials is due to the cryogenic like conditions of the ice field where he was recovered. This is easily the most comprehensive, intact, insitu, archeological record of its age available to us. We have all sorts of organic materials that existed 50 centuries ago, virtually unchanged. It literally froze in time many specific elements of his life. While we could never prove motive beyond challenge, and cannot remain untainted by the influences of modern context and thinking, we can consider what we know and speculate about what we don't.
So this we know...
Ítzi came from some 20km due south of the death site. The pollen found in his gut tells us that he climbed up the mountain during mid Spring. Mosses abundant on shady vertical rock faces and even smaller pieces of liverworts cover his clothing.
He was probably an important member of a relatively large and prosperous community of families who gathered together for mutual protection and socialising. Laws and behaviors of such a community are thought to have been organised around survival and the well being of the smaller units that made up the community rather than the community as a whole. In other words loyalty was to family first, community second. Competition to plant the best soil and hunt the most productive forests was fierce.
Ítzi carries the scars of many injuries and illnesses and ample evidence that he suffers from painful joints and bones. He is decorated by tattoos where one would expect to find key acupuncture points. He is old by the standards of the time, about 40, 158 cm in height and weighing just a little more than 13 kg.
His medicine pouch includes two dried mushrooms with antibiotic properties strung onto leather straps and charcoal good for treating intestinal disorders. He has four broken ribs and whipworms are rife in his colon giving him permanent diarrhea.
He is prepared for the high country. He is wearing three layers of skins and grass. He is securely wrapped in a jacket. His head is covered by a conical bearskin hat of individually cut pieces of fur with leather straps for a chin strap. His shoulders are protected by a cape of braided grass, open in front with slits for his arms. Braiding, the twisting of materials together to form a stronger new material appears to be a very ancient human skill. Perhaps, after the making of stone tools, among the most ancient of human manipulation of natural materials to improve survival. This cape is water repellent and he sleeps on it. His genitals and buttocks are protected by a loincloth held up by a belt which also supports a pair of leggings. Much in the style and manner associated North American native peoples.
His shoes have bearskin soles, deerskin uppers and are packed with grass. They are formed from grass cords that cover the instep and heel and are attached to the sole while the uppers, covered with fur, continue up the leg like a boot and are secured around the ankle with grass cords. They are wide at the bottom and waterproof, perfect for snow travel. He knows where he is going and is prepared for it.
He carries spears, knives and ropes, a hafted copper axe and a sheathed dagger, as well as an unfinished longbow, more than six feet long made from Yew, and a quiver containing a dozen incomplete and broken arrows, made of Viburnum, Cherry and Dogwood
A coiled string, four bundled stag-antler fragments, an antler point and two bundled animal sinews are also tucked away in the quiver.
The handle of the copper axe is 2 feet long and made of Yew. The blade is under 4inches long and its edge is slightly curved with small points at its tip. It appears to have been shaped out of a blank cast from copper mined from nearby mountains. The method of the time was to melt the copper in thick-walled ceramic pots heated by bellows then pour it into a mold before it is cooled, extracted, sharpened and finished by experts. Experts expected not a Yew but an Ash handle, such as can be found on the handle of his small, flint tipped dagger which has twin cutting edges and is kept inside a finely braided scabbard. Such knives are good for skinning animals, scraping hides and cutting meat. There is also a retouching tool made with lime wood.
No less than 17 different types of trees and shrubs are used for his outfit including a backpack made of larch and hazel, two birch bark containers, one for carrying charcoal, a pouch containing flints, fungus for tinder together with leaves of Norway maple used as insulating material for the embers he carries. There are also juniper leaves.
He is a man, whole in every sense. Any one of us could undertake such a journey and carry and use just such tools. The differences lay in the challenges to be faced. This man was very mobile and could carry on his person much of what was needed for the many challenges to his survival.
Ítzi's teeth are very worn from eating tough, unprocessed food. His last meal is bread, herb and a bit of meat. Particles of charcoal stuck to the traces of einkorn wheat used in the bread suggest that it was baked on a stone next to an open fire. The wheat was probably ground in quartz-sandstone mills.
It is likely that Ítzi and his community are not isolated and are engaged in trade because the einkorn wheat found in his gut does not naturally occur in the near region. Families who were primarily hunters traded with those who were primarily farmers. Raiding and carrying away food, women, children and animals was common practice.
But there is no proof of a community 3000m above sea level near the region currently called Hauslabjoch and there wasn't likely one 50 centuries ago. There are trails and routes which pass close to the place where he was found that have been used for many centuries, often by shepherds looking for high pasture. There was no domestic dung of the same time period found around Ítzi's body.
Ítzi went up there for some reason. And he didn't come back for another.
While he was up there he was shot in the back by a flint tipped arrow which passed through his left arm, causing nerve damage and paralysis. It broke his shoulder blade, but missed vital organs. There is evidence of other wounds such a cut on the hand that happened before he died, but no conclusive proof that any of them had an influence on the cause of death. He also had the blood of at least four other individuals on his clothing so speculation that he was in some sort of active altercation with a group of men, perhaps even a pitched battle is certainly possible.
The arrow that killed him may have been loosed from some thirty metres below him and penetrated both his thick clothing and ribcage. He would have suffered a protracted death.
For the purposes of this narrative the most important aspect of this anthropological analysis is that Ítzi offers irrefutable evidence, if we need it, that the ability, if not the urge of one human to take another's life has been with us for at least 50 centuries. Men obviously believed that murder to be a fundamental human approach to settling disputes or managing behavior. The belief that killing another human, not for food or other reasons of predation common in the animal world, but for reasons of possessions, power, justice, control....is a belief that is particularly human and stems from some discovery or understanding that was acquired and deposited in our repository of beliefs, The Magic Helix for want of a better term, many generations before this individual's death.