What The Diet Of A 5,300-Year-Old 'Iceman' Says About Ancient Europeans

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 8:44 pm
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In the early 1990s, a pair of hikers out in the Italian Alps made a discovery - a frozen man who was more than 5,000 years old. He has since been named Otzi after the mountain range where he was found. Otzi has told us a lot about what life was like 5,000 years ago. Scientists have analyzed his sheepskin coat, his goatskin tights, his tattoos covering his skin. And Dr. Frank Maixner of the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, joins us now to talk about what Otzi ate. Welcome.

FRANK MAIXNER: Hello, Ailsa, to you.

CHANG: So I understand it took about 30 years to figure out what was inside his stomach because his stomach was shoved high up into his rib cage.

MAIXNER: That's correct - moved up due to the mummification process under the ribs, and it is now positioned in this unusual position which was a long time overlooked also.

CHANG: OK, so what was in that belly?

MAIXNER: First surprise was really the high fat content we saw there. So it was obvious that a meal was high-fat in this case. And we saw also traces of animal and plant remains under the microscope.

CHANG: And what kind of meat?

MAIXNER: The meat we traced to the ibex and to the red deer.

CHANG: An ibex is a kind of mountain goat.

MAIXNER: That's correct. So it's a mountain goat which lives here in the Alpine area, which obviously has been hunted 5,000 years ago.

CHANG: Does this confirm what we thought humans way back then ate? It was mostly meat, right? Like, I'm thinking the paleo diet is all about high protein, and this kind of confirms that people thousands of years ago did eat a lot of protein.

MAIXNER: Yeah, specifically in this situation. We have to really see also here the limitation of the study. It's one single individual we have now looked at. It's maybe not so easy to generalize. But definitely he ate what he needed in this situation. So we can imagine that he was hiking in about 3,000 meters altitude. It's a harsh environment, very cold. And you need energy in this case.

CHANG: So you have looked at his skin. You have looked at his clothes. You've looked inside his stomach now. What is next for poor Otzi?

MAIXNER: (Laughter) Yeah, we have nearly looked at everything. That's true. But I think what is nice that's - with the new development of new techniques, more sensitive techniques, we can go further. And what we saw already now in the DNA-based analysis - that there are still traces of this so-called gut microbiome present.

CHANG: What is that?

MAIXNER: It's the bacteria community which thrives in the gut of humans. And we try to reconstruct now this ancient gut microbiome since it's really important to understand then how it is maybe changed to nowadays gut microbiomes.

CHANG: So that's the next step in this big study of Otzi - is to look at the bacteria in his stomach.

MAIXNER: Yes, since the bacteria are always linked to the food, so what you eat then shapes the bacteria community. And we think here it would be really interesting to see what bacteria are still present at this time since the diet quite substantially changed to our nowadays diet.

CHANG: Will Otzi continue to be on display for the public to see as you're doing all these studies on him?

MAIXNER: Yes, that's the case. He's in a conservation chamber, which has also a window where people can look at the mummy. And it's displayed here in Bolzano, in Italy continuously to the public.

CHANG: That was Dr. Frank Maixner of the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, joining us via Skype. He's the lead researcher on a new study about the diet of Otzi, the 5,000-year-old Iceman. Thank you so much for joining us.

MAIXNER: It was a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.