He's the oldest preserved human ever found, and now scientists have extracted the food from his stomach.
In 1991, two tourists hiking in the Ötztal Alps of southern Austria happened upon the remains of a human in the ice. Because the body showed only some decay, the hikers assumed that it had belonged to some mountaineer who’d died only recently.
But when researchers examined the remains, they found that the body had been there for 5,300 years. Stunningly well protected by the cold mountain climate, Ötzi the Iceman was the oldest preserved human ever found.
And while researchers have analyzed Ötzi in countless ways since then, they were long unable to locate his stomach. Finally, while looking at radiographic scans in 2009, they realized that his stomach had been pushed up under his ribs where the lungs usually are.
What’s more, like Ötzi himself, the contents of his stomach were extraordinarily well preserved. Now, after years of careful testing and analysis, we know for sure what Ötzi ate just before he died.
According to new research published in the journal Current Biology on July 12, Ötzi’s last meal consisted of ibex meat and fat, einkorn cereals, red deer, and traces of the toxic bracken fern.
In order to make this discovery, “the most advanced, modern and cutting-edge methodologies were employed through the collaboration with worldwide scientific partners,” said Frank Maixner, lead author and a microbiologist at the Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, to All That’s Interesting.
First, the researchers had to defrost the body — normally kept at 21.2 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent microbial invasion — and then carefully pull the food material out of his stomach. They extracted 11 blobs of crumbly yellow/brown material that had been essentially freeze dried, according to Maixner.
The chemical analysis of these blobs revealed not only what he’d eaten but also indicated that the meat had likely been dried for preservation before he ate it, given that fresh meat would have spoiled much faster.
The toxic fern particles were harder to explain, however. Based on prior analysis indicating that he had parasites in his gut, the researchers believe it’s possible that he ate the toxic bracken particles in hopes that it would treat the intestinal problems caused by these parasites.
What made more sense than the bracken was the large presence of fat in Ötzi’s stomach. In particular, the researchers found adipose fat, which serves to store energy.
For a man like Ötzi, who lived in a blisteringly cold alpine environment in which food could be scarce, a high-fat diet would make sense in that it would allow him to store energy and survive through the lean times.
“The high and cold environment is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss,” said Albert Zink, another researcher at the Institute for Mummy Studies.
Overall, the contents of Ötzi’s stomach suggested a remarkably well-balanced diet with energy-rich fats, fiber, and protein.
“Compared to our current meals, the Iceman’s food [was] much less processed,” said Maixner. “Just think about the whole grains and still intact muscle fibers we detected.”
But while we now know what Ötzi ate, is it possible that this new discovery can alter the way we look at how people from his time and place ate as a whole?
“Since we have just one individual and one Copper Age meal, we cannot answer this question,” said Maixner. “Still, however, I think it is important to understand our ancestors’ diet and to compare our findings to our modern dietary habits,” he added. Based on these results, “we can understand major shifts in diet in an evolutionary rather small timeframe.”
So, even though not much time separates Ötzi and us in the grand scheme of things, the way humans eat has certainly changed immensely since his day.