The Iceman's Last Meal
The Iceman on examination table.
by Brenda Fowler
The Iceman did not die on a full stomach. Eight hours before his
death on a barren Alpine pass, he was in the valley to the
south, in what is today Italy's Schnals Valley. There, according to
Dr. Klaus Oeggl, a botanist from the University of Innsbruck who recently
examined his gut contents, the man took his last meal, not long before
setting out on a hike from which he was never to return.
The meal was a simple affair, consisting of a bit of unleavened
bread made of einkorn wheat, one of the few domesticated grains used
in the Iceman's part of the world at this time, some other plant,
possibly an herb or other green, and meat.
Oeggl reconstructed the Iceman's last meal from his microscopic
analysis of a tiny sample removed from the mummy's transverse colon,
the part of the intestine just beyond the stomach. When the Iceman was
discovered in 1991, x-rays and CAT-scans of the corpse revealed that
his internal organs had shrunken so drastically in the 5,300 years in
the glacier that Dr. Dieter Zur Nedden, the radiologist who examined
the images, could barely distinguish them. Instead of filling the
chest cavity with their billowy white form, the lungs looked like
wisps of clouds.
But at the top of the colon, Zur Nedden made out a slight bulge,
which the radiologist suspected was a clump of half-processed food.
The progress of the food indicated that the Iceman had last eaten
about eight hours before he died, possibly of hypothermia, on the
Hauslabjoch pass, which cuts over the main Alpine ridge dividing
Austria from Italy at 10,500 feet above sea level.
Preparing the Iceman for a CAT scan.
Not until several years after the discovery did the Innsbruck
scientists finally cut a hole into the mummy, insert an endoscope, and
snip out about .004 ounces from the colon. Dr. Werner Platzer, the
University of Innsbruck anatomist then in charge of research on the
corpse, gave .0016 ounces milligrams of the material to Oeggl, who had already
been studying the rich botanical finds from the site.
Oeggl's sample was barely the size of his little fingernail. Under
the microscope, he quickly identified the flake-like, semi-digested
material that made up the bulk of the sample as einkorn, the most
important wheat of the Neolithic, the period of prehistory in which
people lived in semi-permanent settlements and survived by agriculture
and keeping animals. The discovery of einkorn, which does not occur
naturally in Europe, in the Iceman's intestinal tract suggested that
he had contact with an agricultural community. The dominance of bran
in the sample led Oeggl to believe that the wheat had been finely
ground into meal and made into bread, rather than eaten as a porridge,
where the grains would have been eaten whole and found in larger
pieces in the colon. But the bread would have been little like modern
breads. In order to get bread to rise when yeast is added, the wheat
grains must contain a high level of gluten, which lends the dough a
durable elasticity and therefore holds the pockets of air. Einkorn has
low levels of gluten, so the bread made with it was probably hard,
somewhat like a cracker, and rather tough on the teeth.
Using an electron microscope Oeggl also spotted tiny particles of
charcoal attached to the bran, probably remnants of the baking process
on a hot rock, or next to a fire. In addition to the einkorn, the
cells of at least one other plant, possibly some herb, were present in
the sample, and Oeggl concluded that they, too, had been part of his
meal. He also found a tiny muscle fiber and a burned bit of bone,
evidence that the Iceman might also have eaten a meat. What kind of
meat Oeggl cannot yet say, nor can he determine how much of the meal
the sample represented.
Wheat spiklets derived from Einkorn grain, stuck to the Iceman's clothing.
Not everything passing through the Iceman's gut had been swallowed
intentionally, or was even desirable. Oeggl also found the eggs of the
human whipworm. Many people alive today who do not live in areas with
flush toilets also carry the worm, which can cause unpleasant symptoms
like stomach ache and diarrhea, or even lead to malnutrition. The
scientists have no way of knowing whether the Iceman had any such
The sample also contained many different varieties of pollen,
whose strange and beautiful forms Oeggl saw under the electron
microscope. Though some peoples are known to eat pollen, Oeggl
believed that the quantity in his colon was too small to represent a
meal. Instead, the pollen accidentally ended up in the man's stomach
because they either had landed in food or water he ingested, or were
inhaled and became trapped in saliva which he then swallowed.
Scientists had long wondered where the Iceman was coming from and
where he was headed, but until the discovery of the pollen inside the
corpse, no scientist had any convincing documentation for his last
day. But the pollen provided a snapshot of the environment the Iceman
was exposed to in the hours before his death.
The majority of the pollen came from the hop hornbeam tree, which
grows in a warm environment. As soon as Oeggl recognized it under his
microscope lens, he not only knew which side of the mountain the
Iceman had been on shortly before his death, but also the season in
which he died. The hop hornbeam tree blooms between March and June,
and because the sperm inside the pollen grain, which normally decays
after a short exposure to air or water, was still intact, Oeggl
believed it had to have been absorbed relatively soon after its
release from the tree. The nearest stands of that tree could have
grown to the south of the Hauslabjoch, at least five or six hours away
by foot. The high valleys to the north are just too cold to sustain
Three grains of Ostrya carpinifolia (Hophornbeam) pollen magnified 1600x.
The pollen of this particular tree was, therefore, one key to
understanding the Iceman's last hours. It meant that the Iceman was
almost certainly in the valley within half a day of his death.
Previously scientists had speculated that the Iceman had died in the
late summer, when he was surprised by an early storm while trying to
cross the pass.
Oeggl readily acknowledges that scientists may never know what prompted the
Iceman to leave the relatively hospitable valley with no water or food to
speak of (a single sloe berry was found with his remains) and try to cross
the mountain at a time of year when several feet of snow easily could have
obscured the topography of the steep and rocky Alpine ridge. But his own
interest in the Iceman's demise is not yet exhausted. He expects that his
meticulous analysis of the botanical and archaeological material recovered
from the bottom of the shallow in which the man died will soon reveal more
details about the circumstances of the Iceman's death.
Brenda Fowler has written on science for The New York Times and is currently
writing a book for Random House on the Iceman.
Photos (1-3) NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation; (4) Reprinted by permission of Blackwell Science, Inc.; (5) Botanical Institute of Innsbruck University.
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