This 5,300-year-old Iceman has close relatives living in the Mediterranean

Everyone, meet Ötzi the Iceman. Well, this is a reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman — you'll find photos of his mummified corpse after the jump. And while Ötzi's remains might look rather run down to you and me, the truth is that any one of us would be lucky to look as good as he does after 5,300 years. That's how long scientists estimate Ötzi went undiscovered in the mountains bordering Italy and Austria before he was discovered there in 1991.

Now, over twenty years later, Europe's oldest natural human mummy has had its genome sequenced, revealing previously unknown details about the Iceman's health, life and death. They've even found clues that point to the location of his closest living relatives.

The findings are the product of an international collaboration led by researcher Albert Zink, head of the institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. In the latest issue of Nature Communications, Zink and his colleagues use Ötzi's genomic data to conclude that the Iceman probably had type-O blood, brown eyes, and suffered from lactose intolerance.

This 5,300-year-old Iceman has close relatives living in the Mediterranean

And while researchers think Ötzi probably died from an arrow to the back, their analyses show that the Iceman had his fair share of everyday health problems, as well. Previous investigations had revealed, for example, that the mummy had hardened arteries — an unusual physiological feature for a man as young and active as researchers believe Ötzi was when he died. But the latest data suggest Ötzi's cardiovascular woes may have been the result of a genetic predisposition to heart disease. The researchers also found traces of DNA from the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, meaning Ötzi may well be the earliest human case of Lyme disease on record. Lucky, lucky Ötzi.

But the coolest results from this study are the ones linking the Iceman to his modern day descendants. Surprisingly, when Zink and his colleagues compared Ötzi's genome with that of modern day European populations, they found he was most closely related not to people from Northern Italy (where he was discovered), but "present-day inhabitants of the Tyrrhenian Sea," specifically men from the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.

This 5,300-year-old Iceman has close relatives living in the Mediterranean

These islands (labeled here in red) are separated from Ötzi's final resting place (marked here with a red circle) by over three hundred miles and a sizable body of water. That's pretty incredible, if you think about it. On one hand, it suggests that Ötzi's descendents may have once inhabited a much larger portion of mainland Europe, only to die out — or become part of a much more diverse genetic pool — save for the inhabitants of these two, isolated islands. It also points to the evolutionarily isolating effects that islands can have on a population's genetic makeup. The fact that these islanders have "remained moored to their genetic past, enough so that a 5,300 year old individual clearly can exhibit affinities with them," as Gene Expression's Razib Khan puts it, is pretty extraordinary.

The researchers' findings are published in Nature Communications


Additional Resources
  • The European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano has an awesome interactive app that lets you explore the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman in stunning detail. You can check it out at ICEMAN Photoscan
  • Those interested in the hardcore genetics linking Ötzi to modern-day Sardinians and Corsicans can read more over on Gene Expression

Top image via South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/EURAC/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz; Ötzi's remains via EURAC; map via Wikimedia Commons