Meet Otzi The Iceman, The Oldest Preserved Human Being Ever Found

Published January 21, 2018
Updated February 6, 2021

When hikers found Otzi frozen in the Alps, they thought he was a mountaineer who had died just recently. They were off by about 5,300 years.

Otzi the Iceman

Paul HANNY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesTwo mountaineers kneel down beside Ötzi the Iceman just days after his discovery, but before he could be moved, in September 1991.

Discovering a corpse during a peaceful mountain hike is a disturbing event no matter the circumstances. Finding out that the body was the victim of a murder is unsettling to say the least. But learning that the murder took place 5,000 years ago even though the body looks startlingly fresh is nothing short of mind-blowing.

When hikers Helmut and Erika Simon came across the frozen corpse of Otzi the Iceman in The Austro-Italian Alps on Sept. 19, 1991, they surely did not realize the historic chain of events their discovery would set off.

At first, the couple thought they had just stumbled upon an unfortunate fellow mountaineer who had recently suffered a fatal accident. However, the Austrian police who were called to the scene soon realized they were dealing with a unique situation.

Over the next three days, a small team of archaeologists extracted the long-frozen body and brought it to the office of a medical examiner in Innsbruck, Austria, where they determined that the body was at least 4,000 years old.

It was later confirmed that “Otzi the Iceman” (as he was dubbed by an Austrian journalist in reference to the site of his discovery in the Ötztal valley Alps), had died sometime between 3350 and 3100 B.C., making him, at about 5,300 years old, the oldest preserved human being ever found.

What made this find so remarkable was that, unlike Egyptian and Incan mummies desiccated by desert climates, Otzi was a “wet” mummy: in a perfect preservation combination, the glacier he died on froze his body, while the humidity in the ice preserved his organs and skin pretty much intact for several millennia.


Andrea Solero/AFP/Getty ImagesOtzi the Iceman on display at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano on Feb. 28, 2011.

Because Otzi was so well-preserved, researchers were able to perform what was essentially a modern autopsy on him, leading to some fascinating insight on what life was like for this man who lived 35 centuries ago.

The contents of his stomach showed various types of pollen that revealed not only that he had died in the spring or summer, but that he had traveled across different elevations in the mountains shortly before his death. Meanwhile, the highly-preserved state of his skin also showed that he had more than 50 tattoos that had been made by rubbing charcoal into tiny cuts.

Even though Otzi the Iceman’s frozen body served up such a treasure trove of information to scientists, the cause of his death wasn’t discovered until a decade after he was initially found. It was then that a scan utilizing new X-ray technology revealed something lodged in Otzi’s left shoulder that had previously been overlooked: an arrowhead.

A murder is still a murder, no matter what century it occurred in, so the museum where Otzi now rests called in Detective Inspector Alexander Horn of the Munich Police to see what he could find out. Inspector Horn was surprised to note that the body was “in better condition than recent homicide victims I’ve worked on who have been found out in the open,” despite the fact that this particular corpse predated the Pyramids.

Otzi The Iceman Recreation

Wikimedia CommonsA recreation of what Otzi would have looked like when he was alive.

The nature of the wound (Otzi was shot from behind) and the fact that the victim’s belongings had not been stolen led Inspector Horn to conclude that this was a homicide of a personal nature, although it doesn’t seem likely any arrests will be made.

And the mysteries surrounding Otzi the Iceman extend beyond his murder: Because the body was removed from the spot it had been resting for thousands of years, there have been rumors of a curse upon those who disturbed him.

In fact, Helmut Simon, one of the hikers who found Otzi back in 1991, met his end during a freak blizzard and was himself found buried under ice and snow not far from where he made the discovery that changed his life.

After learning about Otzi the Iceman, see the stunningly-preserved mummy known as Xin Zhui, a.k.a. Lady Dai. Then, see the horrifying Guanajuato mummies whose faces remain frozen in terror to this day.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.