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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 21:26 GMT
Iceman's final battle
Brando Quilici/Discovery Channel
Dr Egarter Vigl (r) examines the right hand
Brando Quilici/Discovery Channel

test hello test
By Aminda Leigh in Rome, Italy
The famous Stone Age man known as Oetzi the Iceman could have died following violent hand-to-hand combat, research from Italy suggests.

The wound can be interpreted as resulting from a defensive act

Dr Eduard Egarter Vigl
Oetzi's 5,300-year-old mummified remains emerged from a melting glacier in the Alps in 1991.

Last year, scientists discovered a flint arrowhead lodged in the ancient man's back, leading to speculation that he may have fled his attacker before bleeding to death and being encased in ice.

Now, new tests on the body have revealed a deep wound on Oetzi's right hand which, according to the findings, was inflicted in the last few hours of the iceman's life - quite possibly in a fight.

Mountain guide

The latest research has been conducted by Dr Eduard Egarter Vigl, who is the official caretaker of the iceman at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Marco Samadelli/South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
Close-up on the hand wound
Marco Samadelli/South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

At this early stage in the research, Dr Egarter Vigl said "the wound can be interpreted as resulting from a defensive act". He believes his discovery suggests that the iceman was engaged in some kind of close-quarter violent conflict.

"The traumatic damage to the corresponding bone in the mummy's right hand and another damaged bone near the wrist further support this theory," he added.

The revelations were spurred on by conversations between Dr Egarter Vigl and one of the first people to see the mummy in the melting glacier - a mountain guide called Alois Pirpamer.

Further tests

Neither man had met the other until they were brought together during a new film about Oetzi. In the course of the production, Pirpamer mentioned for the first time that when the iceman was discovered in September 1991, the mummy appeared to be holding a knife in his right hand.

Dr Paul Gostner/Ospedale Generale Regionale di Bolzano
X-rays reveal the depth of the injury
Dr Paul Gostner/Ospedale Generale Regionale di Bolzano

Dr Egarter Vigl explored this possibility in the laboratory, using X-rays and microscopic images of the hand to determine whether or not a knife would have fitted in between the position of the fingers. It was during this research that Dr Egarter Vigl discovered the wound.

Scientists now plan further work to corroborate the theory of Oetzi's death, including radiological, hygienic, anatomical and forensic tests.

"We now think we know how Oetzi died, but the exact circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery that will be unravelled over time," said Dr Egarter Vigl.

Bled to death

Oetzi represents one of the great archaeological finds of the last 25 years. His body was discovered by German tourists trekking in the Oetz Valley - hence the name - still wearing goatskin leggings and a grass cape. His copper-headed axe and a quiver full of arrows were lying nearby.

At first, it was thought he died from cold and hunger. It was only last year that researchers finally established he had an arrowhead still embedded in his shoulder and that the nature of the injury - its position in an area full of blood vessels - probably meant he bled to death.

Oetzi was about 159 centimetres (five feet, 2.5 inches) tall, 46 years old, arthritic, and infested with whipworm.

It is believed he belonged to an agricultural community based on the cereal grains found not just on his garments but recovered from his colon, which contained bran of the primitive wheat Einkorn.

Muscle fibres also retrieved from the colon confirm he ate goat meat as well. High levels of copper and arsenic in his hair indicate that he had been involved in copper smelting.

See also:

07 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
Image of Stone Age death
26 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Scientists solve iceman mystery
19 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Iceman keeps scientists guessing
17 Jan 98 | Sci/Tech
Italy's iceman comes home
28 Mar 98 | Despatches
Italian iceman goes on show
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