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The Iceman of 3000 B.C.

The Iceman of 3000 B.C.

The discovery of the body of a man from 5000 years ago in the Alps provides a fascinating glimpse into life in Neolithic (New Stone Age) Europe. A couple from Germany hiking in the mountains at the border between Austria and Italy discovered the remains in September of 1991. After a good deal of confusion about the nature of the find (recent or ancient) and jurisdiction (Austria or Italy) the remains were removed to proper archaeological facilities where the investigation could be undertaken. Radio carbon dating indicated that the remains were 5300 to 5200 years old.

The Iceman's Tools and Weapons

The major surprise given the age of the remains was the copper bit in the axe, shown above, which was found at the site. The copper bit had been cast and smoothed. It was mounted in a carved yew-wood haft. A chemical examination of the copper indicates from the impurities such as arsenic that the ore came from the Alps.

The iceman was armed with a bow and arrows but the bow was apparently unfinished and the two arrows in the quiver which had arrowheads were broken and the unbroken arrows did not have heads. Konrad Spindler in his book The Man in the Ice makes a persuasive case that that the iceman experienced a traumatic episode a few days before his death, probably a battle with men which left him with serially fractured ribs and without a bow and arrows.

The Iceman's Injuries

In 2001 it was discovered that there is an arrowhead imbedded in the left scapula (shoulder blade) of the iceman. This would have paralyzed his left arm and led slowly to his death. This new discovery fits in well to Spindler's case that the iceman was the victim of a raid on his village.

At the time of his death, he had generative arthritis in his legs and back. As stated above he had healed rib fractures and there were healed wounds to one of his hands. He had vascular calcification (hardening of his arteries) which could led eventually to a heart attack. From the absence of milk product residues in his intestines he was probably lactose intolerant.

The Iceman's Final Hours

The iceman's foray into the high mountains in late summer was probably as a result of a need to escape from his opponents. In the course of his flight he acquired the bow stave from a yew tree and the arrow shafts. The bow stave had been partially worked but not completely finished. The arrows needed only arrow heads to be usable. Spindler presents the picture of the iceman fleeing to the high mountains while trying to repair the damage to his equipment and replace the losses. It was a risky gamble by the iceman and he lost, but he probably had no alternative. Spindler suggests that the iceman's village had been raided right after the grain harvest and the raiders intended to massacre all the inhabitants. The iceman escaped but with injuries and damage to some of his equipment. If that was the case the iceman was most likely pursued by the raiders as an implacable enemy who would always be a danger to them. Spindler conjectures on the basis of the iceman's equipment that he may have been a shepherd used to surviving on his own for extended periods. If the iceman was fleeing for his life it is notable that he did almost make it to the watershed divide that would have given him a chance to enter another valley and possible safety.

The Iceman's Equipment

The iceman carried a simple pack frame on which he could carry heavier loads on his back. This pack frame was utter simplicity. It consisted of a hazel branch bent into an inverted U-shape with two boards which were tied over the open ends of the U and fit across the lower back. A fur sack with perhaps a birch-bark container would have been fastened to the pack frame.

There was a second birch-bark container that was for carrying embers. This fire-ember container contained some vegetable matter which included fragments and husks of grain (wheat and einkorn). This is very significant because it indicates that the communities in the region were agricultural.

Around his midriff the iceman had a belt-pouch which contained a few essential tools and supplies. On the outside of the belt-pouch hung a two-edged blunt-pointed knife in a woven grass scabbard. This knife would be useful for cutting but would not serve as a stabbing weapon.

The pouch contained a small stubby rod looking somewhat like a pencil but containing a rod made of antler. This was a tool for touching up the edge of flint blades; i.e., for flaking off bits of the edge to give a new sharp edge.

The iceman carried a fire-starting kit as well as a container for carrying embers. The fire-starting kit had tender consisting of pulp from a particular mushroom and pieces of flint. There was evidence in terms of dust that pyrite had been used with the fire starting kit but no pieces of pyrite were found.

Another notable bit of equipment was a net. The mesh of the net is too large for effective fishing but might have served to trap birds. Spindler had seen similar nets used in Portugal to trap birds.

Found with the iceman were two pieces of birch fungi or galls which were pierced by strips of animal hide. Sprindler suggests these were worn on the left wrist by the iceman for medicinal reasons. The birch gall has antibacterial properties.

The Iceman's Clothing

The iceman's clothing consisted of:

The clothing and equipment of the iceman is comparable to that of Stone Age peoples of modern times such as Amerindians before European contact. In some ways the iceman had more sophisticated material than the Stone Age people of modern times. He after all was living during the end of the Stone Age in the transition to the Bronze Age.

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