Ötzi, the frozen Alps mummy

I remember seeing an awesome documentary on the Discovery Channel way back, about the now infamous Iceman, a Neolithic mummy found in the Italian Alps. The documentary tried to offer a glimpse at his last moments in life, offering multiple hypotheses on the circumstances of his death (it has now been proved that his death was cause by a cranium trauma), and also the portrait of the Neolithic man from 5000 years ago. The body of the Iceman (also called Ötzi, Frozen Fritz and Similaun Man) was discovered in 1991 by accident by German tourists and made headlines around the world. At first he was thought to have died recently.

Anyway, some interesting new data has surfaced, concerning the 45-year-old man who trekked up the Schnalstal glacier in the Italian Alps before dying, this time about his “job.” Apparently, new findings have proven to be important clues to Iceman’s trade.

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“There is a long lasting debate about the socio-cultural state of Iceman’s society,” lead researcher Klaus Hollemeyer of Saarland University in Germany told LiveScience. “One fraction says he belongs to the gatherer-hunter society, which is more primitive than the more progressive pastoral-agricultural society which followed after.”

While clothing made from domesticated animals would support him being a herdsman (pastoral-agricultural society), attire made from wild animals could suggest a hunter-gatherer, the researchers say. Although his clothes were known already to be made of animal skins, their exact origin was uncertain, with previous studies revealing conflicting results. A new discovery in his clothes composition, however, reveals that’s very likely Iceman herded sheep, cattle and perhaps goat.

The researchers used a mass spectrometer, which measures the heft and concentrations of atoms and molecules, to look for various proteins in hair samples taken from the Iceman’s clothing, comparing the results with proteins from the hairs of modern-day animals, including goat, sheep, elk, wild boar and caribou.

“We found that the hairs came from sheep and cattle, just the types of animals that herdsmen care for during their seasonal migrations,” Hollemeyer said.

Next, Hollemeyer hopes to use the same technique to analyze the fur from the Iceman’s cap and soles of his shoes. The further data resulted from here will definitely infirm the herder possibility, but at the same time, if the study proves to be contradictory, might shatter the hypothesis indefinitely.