Ancient Plants Found on Ötzi the Iceman's Clothes Offer Clues to His Final Journey

Researchers are attempting to piece together Ötzi the Iceman's final journey—and are using ancient moss to do it.

Archaeobotanists at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, UK, have identified more than 75 species of bryophytes (non-vascular plants that include mosses and liverworts) frozen alongside Ötzi approximately 5,300 years ago. The results have been published in PLOS ONE.

"They were recovered as mostly small scraps from the ice around him, from his clothes and gear, and even from his alimentary tract," James Dickson of the University of Glasgow, UK, said in a statement.

"Those findings prompted the questions: Where did the fragments come from? How precisely did they get there? How do they help our understanding of the Iceman?"

Dickenson and colleagues found that 21 of the bryophyte species identified were likely to have originated close to the site of Ötzi's body, at the top of the Tisenjoch pass in the Ötztal Alps near to the Italian-Austrian border. However, some of the other the other bryophyte species identified would have originated from elsewhere, including areas at lower elevations.

In total, they believe approximately 30 percent would have been local species. The other 70 percent would have been carried by Ötzi in his gut or clothing—or from the droppings of large mammalian herbivores.

The origin of these plants suggests Ötzi traveled along the Schnalstal Valley, an alpine route that stands at 500 to 3,200 meters (1,640 feet to 10,500 feet) above sea level with mild climates and apple orchids at one end and glaciers at the other. Previous research identifying the origin of the pollen ingested by Ötzi supports this conclusion.

"These final journeys lend new weight to the 'disaster' theory of Ötzi's death, which suggests that, returning from the high alpine pastures to his native village, he came into a severe conflict with his kin such that he had to flee from the community back to the high ground familiar to him, where he died," the study, published in Quaternary Science Reviews in 2007, stated.

Otzi the iceman
Plants frozen alongside Ötzi hold clues to his final journey. Pictured: Ötzi displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano on February 28, 2011. Andrea Solero/AFP/Getty

What do we know about Ötzi the Iceman?

Ötzi the Iceman is remarkably well-preserved to the point where his tattoos are still discernible and his final meals can be identified (Alpine ibex and red deer meat), but most of his life remains a mystery.

His body was found in 1991 alongside clothing and equipment. The latter included a bow and arrows, a fire-making kit stored in a belly bag and a copper-headed ax of southern Tuscan origin.

Examination of Ötzi 's body suggests he was in his mid-40s when he died. Scientists believe he bled to death after an arrow punctured the back under his left shoulder.

His body shows other signs of injury (some fresh and some old), including a frost-bitten toe and broken ribs. There are also signs that he suffered from various ailments during his lifetime, including gallstones and whipworms.

Otzi the iceman
A representation of Ötzi created by Dutch experts Alfons and Adrie Kennis. AFP PHOTO / Andrea Solero/Getty