Dozens of moss species buried alongside Ötzi the Iceman bolster the theory that his last journey was through a gorge, possibly on the run from someone.
The 5300-year-old mummified body was first found by mountaineers in the Alps on the border of Italy and Austria in 1991. His demise was a gruesome one: it is thought he bled to death after being shot in the left shoulder with an arrow.
The iceman was so well-preserved that scientists have not only been able to study his clothes and gear, but also the contents of his stomach and intestines.
James Dickson at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and his colleagues analysed the thousands of fragments of mosses and liverworts buried alongside or inside Ötzi to understand his final days.
The plants were from at least 75 different species, only 23 of which live in that precise area today. One of the most intriguing discoveries was finding a species of bog moss, Sphagnum affine, in Ötzi’s colon. This moss is typically found in wetlands and probably came from the bottom of the Vinschgau valley in South Tyrol, Italy. Some researchers believe this was Ötzi’s home as an adult.
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The moss had long been used for staunching wounds because of its mild antiseptic properties. It may have been to treat the deep wound he received to his right palm possibly 48 hours or less before his death, says Dickson.
Dickson was also surprised to find fragments of the moss Neckera complanata in his intestines. “This is a low-altitude moss of the woodlands,” he says. “Here he is at 3,200 metres above sea level – which is way above the treeline. These mosses couldn’t possibly have grown there.”
This suggests Ötzi travelled from the forests below, possibly at 1200 metres but maybe as low as 600 metres above sea level, and went northward up the gorge.
“It seems puzzling that he took the most stressful track through a gorge, but considering scenarios that he was on the run, a gorge provided most opportunities to hide,” Dickson and his colleagues wrote.
In his digestive tract, the researchers also found several other species of moss that appear to be from an area north-west of the Schnalstal valley called Kurzras. This is around 15 kilometres from Vinschgau, at an elevation of around 2250 metres.
This may have been the Iceman’s last stop before his sprint up to 3210 metres and his eventual death.
Journal reference: PLOS ONE, DOI: doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223752
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