Friday, April 14, 2017

The case of the murdered mummy 

It’s been 26 years since the remains of Otzi The Iceman were recovered from a receding glacier in the Otzal Alps of Italy.
He died about a 1,000 feet below the summit of the 12,000-foot Fineilspitze, which I believe translates to final point. Ironic because poor old Otzi has been final for 5,200 years.

It was a lonely place to die, and it took a decade to discover he was murdered by an archer who fired from a lower elevation. The body was frozen immediately after because it was not scavenged by the critters. He was a mummy before he was yummy.

He is the oldest mummy in the world, as well as the only stone-age man who died while he was still a working stiff. Still is. For a dead guy, he has enjoyed a remarkable second career, as a scientific specimen and tourist attraction.


Otzi and his spiffy outfit.


This case has recently come to the firm of Holmes and Raven, Consulting Detectives.

We have been engaged by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is convinced that migrants from the Middle East are polluting the Rhine River where it dumps into the North Sea near Tulipville in Holland.

Wilders is convinced migrants were responsible for Otzi’s death.

We are sad to report Wilders is correct. Migrants and global warming, which sounds familiar to the modern debate.

Here’s a short summary of the victim, compiled by  J. Edgar Flintstone, head of the Neolithic Bureau of Investigation when Otzi was still just a missing person’s case.

Name: Otzi T. Iceman

Race: Caucasian.

Occupation: Part-time neolithic farmer; full time alpine hunter.

Age: 46ish

Likes: Ibex burgers

Dislikes: Trespassers with arrows, grizzly bears.

Identifying marks: Tatoos on lower body; lots of them.

Personal property: Flint dagger, copper axe, bow and quiver. Quiver contains two broken arrows and 12 incomplete arrow shafts. Bow probably not  functional. No bow string.

Flintstone, in typical cop fashion, focused on Otzi’s wife’s boyfriend, but the case went nowhere.

Quick Watson, doom is afoot

My associate, Sherlock Holmes, took a high interest in our case, as, he too, died more than a century ago but has continued to enjoy a stellar career up to the present day.

Turns out, Sherlock didn’t really expire, only his copyright did.

Holmes and Raven is a multinational consultancy. Holmes still keeps his rooms at 221B Baker Street, London, while I keep an office at 710 Ashbury St., San Francisco. Technically, I am in the alley behind 710 Ashbury in an abandoned refrigerator crate. My files are kept in a Safeway shopping cart.

After Otzi was removed from the glacier in the fall of 1991, he was taken to the University of Innsbruck on the Austrian side of the Tyrol, where it was quickly determined he was a later stone-age man. The folks at Innsbruck knew they had hit the archaeological jackpot.

Before Otzi, the archaeological business had been slow. During the summer just ended, Innsbruck grad students were excavating in the path of some civic improvement to remove and catalogue pottery shards from the historical period.

At Innsbruck, Otzi quickly developed a narrative based more on assumption than scientific inquiry : He was neolithic sheepherder who suffered some tragedy. The location of the body indicated he was under high stress when he died. He was attempting to flee from something and flee to something at the same time. The iceman was in a desperate situation.

The German-born Konrad Spindler, wrangled control of the iceman, much to annoyance of many of the scientists who worked on the project.

The Austrians had Otzi until 1998 and collected a great deal of information about the neolithic life of the iceman but missed the important clue: He had been murdered.

The arrowhead that killed him was discovered by X-ray (CT scan) in 2001 in Bolzano Italy, where Ozti had new accommodations.

Round up the usual suspects

The immediate conclusion was Otzi’s death occurred during some sort of hunting mishap involving Dick Cheney. Cheney’s old enough, but is known to avoid places where he cannot see an oil well. He also avoids areas with strong extradition laws.

The next suspect was O.J. Simpson, but Johnnie Cochran was still Simpson's attorney of record. “If it’s Frozen Fritz, you must acquit,” Cochran kept shouting. The Italians did not need that kind of grief.

Unless you are Jimmy Hoffa, the body of a murder victim is easier to locate than the murderer. Holmes and Raven have proceeded on that basis.

Holmes Victorian-era mantra was: “If you eliminate the impossible, that which remains, however implausible, must be the truth.”

Here in the 21st Century, he has modified the doctrine to: “Throw out the poppycock and evaluate the rest as less likely or more likely.” We proceeded on that basis.

Did Otzi know his killer? He did not. The arrowhead that killed him is unlike the arrowheads he carried. This is clear from the X-ray. The fatal arrow is small and light - the size of a dime - and is cut to resist removal. The arrowhead is still in the victim, and it is not known whether it is flint, volcanic glass, quartz, or even feldspar.

We are amazed at the lack of curiosity about this matter in the archaeological world. The arrow shaft was not found with the body, indicating someone tried to remove the shaft, perhaps tearing tissue and killing him. The archer who shot him would not have bothered.

The arrow that killed Otzi is different than the hunting points he carried. It's an important clue.

Was Otzi so desperate that he made desperate decisions by climbing the treeless Alps to escape death?

Less Likely.

The Otzi gang was in a serious running fight lasting at least three days and perhaps three weeks, based on Otzi’s movements, tracked from pollen, in him or on him. Pollen tells us Otzi was high in the forested region, went down the mountain quickly and then returned to ascend to an area above the forested region. Others must have been with him, on the second trip if not on the first.

The plateau, where he met his fate would have been the perfect defensive position. The glacier had receded, and had carved a flat area surrounded by very steep slopes. Enemies trying to climb these slopes would be sitting ducks. The gully where Otzi’s remains were found added additional protection.

This didn’t work out for Otzi, who was likely the oldest member of the party but also likely to be the most knowledgeable about that section of the Alps. The climb from the pass is still arduous and Otzi may have been the last man up - just enough for a skilled archer to target the iceman. The defensive strategy apparently worked, given only the lone iceman was preserved in the gully.

The plateau has never been archaeologically surveyed. Only the gully where the body was found was thoroughly examined. The site itself is a train wreck. After Helmut and Erika Simon discovered the remains,  22 alpinists visited the site before Otzi was removed by helicopter. Some of the visitors broke things, tramped and crushed artifacts, and some removed artifacts.

The Otzi find site is identified by red dot. Below at the pass is the hotel for alpinists. In the Neolithic this was probably a Motel 6.


The usual suspects.

Sherlock and I got into a scrap about the suspects in Otzi’s death.

I sided with the logic of the anthro-archaeological thesis that Otzi’s neolithic tribe were both farmers and herdsmen. The sheep and aurochs could manure the fields in winter and be driven to the high meadows in spring and summer.

Otzi’s kit contained two or three items that could have come from domestic animals. But even Spindler conceded that those products could have come from the wild versions of those same animals. Nothing he wore was woven.

My thinking: Herders, if successful, would need more and more land for their operations, which would lead to range wars with their opponents on the other side of the hill.

But old Sherlock went with the unfortunate fact that there is no evidence for the herding thesis while there is ample evidence for the migration thesis.

Our employer, the Dutchman, Wilders, really liked the idea that proto-Russians from the Black Sea were the culprits in the murder.

Sherlock even went so far as to name the killer: A neolithic archer named Boris Badenov

Spindler, the German, had different ideas. He thought the mountain people of the Austrian Tyrol and the Italian South Tyrol, had been pushed there from the Rhine River of the north and from the south by neolithic linguini farmers of Italy.

The Julian Alps viewed from Slovenia. You can see why Slovenians don't get good pizza delivery.


Archaeological evidence does not support a neolithic presence in Italy, because Italy was just too hard to get to: surrounded on three sides by sea, the only passage would have been a through the Julian Alps from Slovenia. Spindler was hot to connect Otzi to the cultural tombs of Remedello more than 100 miles to the south and more that 1,000 years into the future, but also conceded this was a bit of a stretch.

Spindler did write that what little is known about the neolithic farming settlements of the Tyrol, Swiss lakeside villages and the South Tyrol, is they were all built on defensive, hilltop sites. Good (de)fences, make good neighbors, I guess.

The whole of the neolithic era in Europe, from about 8,000 BC to about 2,800 BC, reminds me of California weather: Fire, flood, earthquakes and the occasional volcanic eruption. We know that this is just divine retribution. Coveting thy neighbor’s ass is the least of our sins.

But what about poor Otzi?

Sure, he and his clan were overhunting and otherwise screwing up the alpine ecosystem, but it wasn’t exactly Sodom and Gomorrah, which is far to the west in Hollywood and parts of Burbank, and far into the future.

Among the nine Carbon 14 dates of and around Otzi’s person, the latest date of his death was about 3,140 BC and the earliest about 3,350BC. His clothing and tools are consistent with the average date of 3,200 BC. Almost everything he wore, ate, or used is now extinct in the Otzal Alps.


Think globally; shoot locally

The world in 3,200 BC was a hopping joint. The Sumerians were recording tax records on clay tablets and Troy I, in Turkey was established as a trading center between East and West. But most important was a world-wide drought that caused the abandonment of all the clay cities in the Indus Valley of Pakistan and presumably a migration from the Black Sea region into the Alps, first upstream along the Danube River and then downstream along the Rhine River.

With this came the dispersion of the Indo-European language,which is the root language of English, German, Italic, Spanish and Sanskrit of the Indus Valley. One of the commonalities of Indo-European based language is the word for snow. Only Finnish and Iberian Basques do not share the Indo-European root.

Hence we have our migrants, among them, Mr. Badenov and his girl, Natasha, both of whom later gained prominence in Mooselvania.

Meanwhile in 3,200 BC, Italy’s neighbor to the east (Slovenia) was busy inventing the wheel, and building dugout canoes. At some point, archaeologists are just going to have to concede that watercraft were part of neolithic equation in Europe, England and even North America.

The 9-mile gap between Morocco and Gibraltar would have been a big time-saver, compared to walking completely around the Mediterranean Sea.

Replica of Slovenian wheel, the oldest wheel ever found.

The Heretics.

Two scientists who studied Otzi have been viewed with academic suspicion but both have come up with plausible thesis about the iceman’s fate.

Thomas Loy concluded Otzi had four samples of human blood that was not the iceman’s own. Two different samples were on one arrowhead; one sample was on Otzi’s flint dagger, and one sample was on Otzi’s clothing.

This news was reported in the popular press, but Loy did not publish his findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, so the results of findings remain somewhat cryptic.

Loy taught and worked at the University of Queensland, Australia and was found dead at his home there in 2005. Among his projects was writing a book about Otzi.

Loy’s claim to fame and infamy was founded on his curiosity about the patina found on ancient spearpoints which turned out to be blood. This was a controversial subject, indicating that artifacts had been mishandled historically by washing off the coatings on hunting points.

The second heretic is Bryan Sykes, a geneticist. Sykes works with mitochondrial DNA, passed only through mothers. He was among the first geneticists to successfully extract ancient DNA and to amplify (PCR) DNA into a usable quantity. 

He extracted DNA from Otzi, but created controversy by opposing the thesis that paleolithic hunter-gatherers were replaced in Europe and the Middle East by successive waves of migrants from out of Africa.

Sykes findings were that mtDNA did not point back to Africa, but instead the hunter-gatherer migrants must have become the neolithic farmers who became modern Europeans. Sykes proposes that all of modern Europe is descended from only seven paleolithic clans.

None of this looks good for Otzi's neolithic clan. Vestiges of Otzi's DNA have turned up in Europe, Wales and Corsica but the thread is thin. The mtDNA of his mother, an ancient Swiss Miss appears to have disappeared.

Sykes, the DNA guy has since turned his attention to finding DNA samples of the Abominable Snowman. Sykes has also established a commercial DNA business where folks can  send their spit to find out if their real father was the  postman.

I tried this out on Sherlock because you have to admit the guy is a little odd. Sherlock was chastened to discover his mother was Charlotte Bronte and his father was an Underwood typewriting machine favored by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The South Tyrol , where Otzi hung out. The dotted line is the path used by Helmut and Erika Simon who discovered the iceman. Otzi most certainly used the same route from his village which may now be beneath Vernagt Lake, a modern reservoir.


The man in the ice, by Konrad Spindler, English translation 1994. Worth reading for details on initial find of Otzi.

Iceman, by Brenda Fowler, 2000. The book-length feature story about the scientific staff at Innsbruck.

Every bone tells a story, by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw, 2010, a collection of stories about early-man discoveries, including Otzi.

Seven daughters of Eve, by Brian Sykes, 2001. DNA of early man.

And a whole bunch of internetti stuff, some of which is hyperlinked throughout this essay.

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