Monday, July 16, 2018

The Iceman's Last Meal

Replicas of the items of clothing worn by Ötzi the Iceman,
made for the documentary film Der Ötztal-Mann und 
seine Welt, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.
Found on Wikimedia Commons.
In this week's Economist, of all places, there's a report about a recent analysis of the last meal of Ötzi, the Stone Age "Iceman" whose well-preserved body was discovered in the alps over 20 years ago.

A study of the contents of Ötzi's stomach was done by two researchers with the Institute for Mummy Studies in Balzano, Italy, named Frank Maixner and Albert Zink.  Drs. Maixner and Zink's study appears in the journal Current Biology.  Readers who do not have subscriptions either to the Economist or to Current Biology can check out other summaries of the findings here and here.  The National Geographic article in particular contains some interesting details about how the samples were obtained.

From prior scans of Ötzi's body, the researchers knew that his stomach had been full at the time of his death, so they resolved to cut into the stomach and perform a detailed analysis, including a chemical analysis, of his stomach contents.  The results of the chemical analysis enabled Drs. Maixner and Zink to identify the contents as meat and fat from the ibex and red deer, mixed with einkorn wheat.  Small amounts of bracken fern were also found.  Bracken is toxic, but tiny bits of it may have ended up in Ötzi's stomach if the meat had been wrapped in bracken leaves. The analysis indicated that the meat had been exposed to temperatures of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, supporting the idea that it had been smoked rather than cooked.  (Flecks of carbon found in the samples also support this idea.)

Of interest to nutritionists, as well as to those of us who attempt to "eat healthy," is the fact that the total contents of Ötzi's stomach were approximately 46% animal fat.  This result also raises new questions about Ötzi's final journey, as well as about Stone Age diet in general.  Did Ötzi eat a higher fat meal than normal before setting out, to fuel himself for trekking through the mountains?  The information gleaned about the meal suggests that he brought food with him for his journey, adding to the picture of careful preparation for a mountain journey drawn by his clothing and equipment.  But that preparation for a special trip still doesn't rule out the possibility that his meal might have been typical for a man of his age, occupation, and time.  If so, what does that tell us about Stone Age life?

Only one thing is certain; we have yet to learn everything there is to learn from the mortal remains of this famous traveller from the Stone Age.

EDIT:  Correcting the reference to the heat to which the meat is believed to have been exposed.  

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