Archaeology's most famous murder victim might not have been murdered after all

Otzi the Iceman, the 5300-year-old frozen body discovered in the Alps in 1991, was thought to be a prehistoric murder victim. But a revolutionary map of his belongings overturns that theory, suggesting his "murder" scene is actually a ceremonial burial.

Previous studies of the cause of Otzi's death have focused on just his body. In isolation, the corpse tells a convincing story: he was shot in the shoulder with an arrow, and this wound likely was the cause of his death. Considering he died prone and alone in an isolated mountain pass high in the Alps, the explanation seems clear: somebody shot him far from his home and left him to die.

But a new study led by Alessandro Vanzetti of the University of Rome, La Sapienza, offers a radically different interpretation. They made a spatial map of the various belongings he apparently discarded as he succumbed to his wounds - these belongings included "a copper axe, dagger, quiver, backpack, birch-bark container, and an unfinished bow." The map revealed these possessions weren't just scattered randomly but instead carefully organized a few meters away from Otzi's final resting place. Since it wouldn't make much sense for a dying man to painstakingly position his now useless belonging and then stagger five meters away to die, Vanzetti and his team believe this is evidence of a ceremonial burial by Otzi's people.

This theory would also account for other mysteries about Otzi. Analyses of his digestive system showed he ate his last meal in April, but pollen in the ice around his body dates his arrival on the mountain around August or September. This can be explained if Otzi died in the spring but his people had to wait until late summer for the ice to thaw enough to make burial in the mountains possible. It also accounts for why he had an unfinished bow with him, which is a strangely useless thing for a living traveler to take with him on a dangerous mountain route.

[Antiquity Journal via ScienceNOW]