Finding the body of a person who died 5,300 years ago would be most rare. But it happened in 1991 when a group of hikers found a frozen corpse and his belongings in the mountainous border between Austria and Italy.  

The body, dubbed "Oetzi the Iceman," had been entombed in an alpine glacier. (Oetzi is the name of the mountain range.) It was exceptionally well-preserved due to a combination of glacial melt water and the extreme cold. Connective tissue and nervous system components were still intact, and thus Oetzi holds the record as the oldest naturally preserved ice mummy.

The circumstances of his death became the world's most ancient murder case, and it sparked a political and diplomatic uproar and worldwide scientific curiosity. For the former, there was an diplomatic tussle over his resting place and which country would gain access to his remains. It finally ended up in an archeological museum in Bolzano, Italy.

A host of forensic pathologists and archeologists clamored for the opportunity to examine the remains. Subsequent analysis told a fascinating tale. An initial investigation suggested that Oetzi died of exposure during a winter storm and that the corpse was approximately 45 years of age, was 5 feet, 2 inches, tall and weighed 110 pounds. CT scans unexpectedly revealed that an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder had severed a major blood vessel between the rib cage and the left scapula. Such a wound could have led to hemmorrhagic shock and his quick demise.

Further examination of Oetzi's red blood cells with sensitive analytic tools confirmed that he had sustained several injuries before his death. He also had a laceration on his hand, suggesting he had been fighting. This led to speculation about a fugitive fleeing an unknown lynch mob.

The autopsy proved conclusively that Oetzi did not die from exposure to the cold as originally surmised but the victim of an unsolved murder that occurred in late spring or early summer around 3300 BC.

Öetzi suffered a variety of ailments, including gall bladder stones, Lyme disease, whipworms in his colon and atherosclerosis. Researchers have sequenced Öetzi’s entire genome and identified a genetic predisposition to heart disease. Moreover, he had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant, and had blood type "O." There was also evidence of metal in hair samples, and he might have been involved in mining or smelting copper. Additional studies continue to reveal more about the iceman.

 3D reconstructions using computer tomography offered new insights into the iceman's oral health, showing how severely he suffered from advanced periodontitis, an oral disease that causes chronic inflammation of the tissue surrounding the teeth. The examining dentist found loss of the periodontal supporting tissue that extended nearly to the tip of the root, particularly in the rear molar area. The tooth decay can most likely be attributed to Oetzi eating more and more starchy foods such as breads and cereal porridge. These food items were more commonly consumed in the Neolithic period than earlier because of the rise of agriculture.

The Iceman's abraded tooth surfaces demonstrated the abrasive nature of his food, probably due to contaminants and the rub-off from the quern (a mill used to grind grain). Oetzi also sustained mechanical damage to some teeth, which along with his other injuries testifies to a tough life. One front tooth suffered damage, with discoloration still clearly visible, and one molar lost a cusp, probably from chewing on something akin to a small rock in the porridge.

Oetzi was tattooed, and offers the earliest direct evidence that tattooing was practiced in Europe by at least the Chalcolithic period (5500 to 3000 B.C.). However, until now it has been difficult to conclusively catalog all of his marks. Oetzi’s epidermis naturally darkened from prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures as he lay beneath the glacier, and as a result some of his tattoos became faint or invisible to the naked eye. Consequently previous studies have identified between 47 and 60 tattoos on the iceman’s body.

There was a recent report from researchers who conducted the first in-depth analysis of the iceman's stomach contents. The study offers a rare glimpse of his ancient eating habits. Among other things, their findings show that the iceman's last meal was heavy in fat. The researchers combined classical microscopic and modern molecular approaches to determine the exact composition of the Iceman's diet prior to his death. Analysis identified ibex (wild goat) and red deer tissue as the most likely sources of fat. In fact, about half of the stomach contents were composed of animal fat.

While the high-fat diet was unexpected, the re-searchers say it totally makes sense given the extreme alpine environment in which the iceman lived and where he was found. Fat makes an excellent energy source for anyone exposed to cold weather. Unfortunately, high fat intake has a strong correlation with increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, touces on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@ gmail.com.