Sunday, 14 Apr 2024

5,300-year-old frozen 'Iceman' looked nothing like how we imagined

Otzi the 5,300-year-old mummified body – discovered in melting ice in The Alps in 1991 – may have had dark skin, dark eyes and a balding head, analysis suggests.

Initial studies of the corpse, also called the Iceman, revealed genetic traces of eastern European steppe herders from 4,900 years ago. However the new study no longer supports this finding.

Researchers said technology has advanced since the first study, and many more genomes of other prehistoric Europeans have been fully decoded.

This made it possible to compare Otzi’s genetic code with his contemporaries.

Scientists found that among the hundreds of early European people who lived at the same time as Otzi, and whose genomes (full set of DNA) are now available, Iceman has more ancestry in common with early Anatolian farmers than any of his European counterparts.

‘The genome analysis revealed phenotypic traits such as high skin pigmentation, dark eye colour, and male pattern baldness that are in stark contrast to the previous reconstructions that show a light-skinned, light-eyed and quite hairy male,’ said Johannes Krause, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

‘The mummy itself, however, is dark and has no hair.’

He noted that while alive, Otzi looked more like the mummy does today than previously thought.

‘It’s the darkest skin tone that has been recorded in contemporary European individuals,’ said anthropologist Albert Zink, the study co-author and head of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.

‘It was previously thought that the mummy’s skin had darkened during its preservation in the ice, but presumably what we see now is actually largely Otzi’s original skin colour.’

Knowing this is also important for the proper conservation of the mummy.

Otzi captured global attention in 1991 when he was discovered by hikers 3,210 metres above sea level.

Radiocarbon-dated to 3300 BC, the body is that of a man aged 25 to 35 who was about 5 feet 2 inches (1.6 metres) tall and had weighed around 110 pounds (50 kilos).

It was originally believed he had fallen victim to exposure or exhaustion while crossing the Alps and froze to death but X-ray examination in 2001 showed that an arrowhead was lodged in his left shoulder, suggesting that he had likely bled to death.

Now researchers have used state of the art technology to generate a much higher quality genome to learn more about his genetic history- and found some surprises.

The researchers said the previous image of Otzi is also incorrect regarding his hair.

As a mature man, he most likely no longer had long, thick hair on his head, but at most a sparse crown of hair.

However, according to the study published in Cell Genomics, his genes suggest a predisposition to baldness.

‘This is a relatively clear result and could also explain why almost no hair was found on the mummy,’ said Dr Zink.

Genes presenting an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes were also found in the Iceman’s genome, but these factors probably did not come into play because of his healthy lifestyle.

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