Murdered more than 5,000 years ago, Otzi the Iceman is one of the oldest natural human mummies on Earth. Now, newly discovered evidence sheds light not only on this mysterious ancient man, but also on the dawn of civilization in Europe. Otzi continues to provide scientists, historians, and archeologists with groundbreaking discoveries about a crucial time in human history. In order to preserve the mummified remains, this extraordinary body has been locked away, out of reach, in a frozen crypt—until now. “NOVA: Iceman Reborn” chronicles how a unique collaboration of science and art is attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding this ancient mummy, defrosting not only the details of Otzi’s death, but also an entire way of life. The Iceman Cometh, but you’ll have to wait until May 10 for the DVD. At least there’ a sneak peek, courtesy of PBS Distribution
Since his discovery in 1991, Otzi the Iceman, has been both an international sensation and a scientific treasure. He is one of the most complete and best-preserved ancient human specimens ever found. The famous mummified corpse has been poked, prodded, and probed by scientists, and as technology, including X-rays and CT-scans, has advanced through the years, basic knowledge of the man behind the mummy has grown. Otzi continues to possess many secrets, and new technology is yielding fresh revelations about Otzi’s life and the world he lived in, from the strange tattoos that cover his skin to the DNA in his bones. Researchers are trying to use his genetic code to uncover his true origins, and help solve long-standing mysteries about how people lived at the end of the Stone Age.
Today, access to Otzi the Iceman is limited as his body is perpetually preserved in a custom-made freezer in an Italian museum where visitors can only get a glimpse of him through a small window. Because Otzi’s condition is so delicate, he is kept under sterile conditions to protect him from potentially destructive bacteria. The program joins renowned artist and paleo-sculptor Gary Staab as he is granted rare access into the Iceman’s frozen lair for an unprecedented intimate meeting with the mummy. Gary has been commissioned to create an exact replica of the body, which scientists and the public alike can then study up close and in person.
A master model maker, Gary Staab has been commissioned to bring dozens of extinct creatures to life for museums around the world. Creating the exact replica of Otzi is one of the biggest challenges in his career—because of complex changes that the corpse underwent as it was frozen and compressed by the glacier, and because of damage likely inflicted by scavenging animals. Viewers see the Iceman painstakingly brought to life through a process that combines cutting edge modern technology with age-old sculpting and painting techniques. The program travels to Belgium, where a 3D printer at the innovative company Materialise constructs a resin-based prototype from CT-scans, layer by layer, in astonishingly accurate detail. The replica created via 3D printing is more exact than any free-hand method could have achieved providing the precise shape and dimensions of the original mummy. Gary and his team then begin the labor-intensive task of building Otzi’s skin through sculpting, molding, and painting, all by hand.
Among the details on Otzi that intrigued Gary the most, are the Iceman’s more than 60 tattoos, currently the world’s oldest known. Tattooing has been practiced throughout ancient cultures, and researchers have been fascinated by Otzi’s, wondering if his may have been decorative or had symbolic spiritual meaning. To better understand the markings, Gary meets with prehistoric archaeologist expert Aaron Deter-Wolf, who demonstrates how the tattoos could have been made with bone needle and charcoal. CT-scans have confirmed that when Otzi was alive, he likely suffered from chronic pain. The placement of the markings suggests Otzi may have used the piercings for therapeutic relief from pain.
Extraordinary personal possessions found with Otzi also suggest tattoos may not have been the only medicinal treatment he relied on. “NOVA” meets with archeologist Patrick Hunt, who believes one of the mushrooms recovered with Otzi likely served as a kind of Stone Age medicine kit, since the fungus displays anti-bacterial properties and could be used as an anti-inflammatory. Otzi would be the oldest case on record for humans using fungi for medicinal properties and pushes back scientists’ understanding of our human medical knowledge much earlier in prehistoric time.
The program also features some of the revealing findings collected after an international group of scientists performed an autopsy on the mummy to collect genetic samples from his stomach and hipbone. Each specimen revealed something new about the Iceman. The hipbone yielded well-preserved DNA, allowing scientists to learn more about Otzi’s physical traits and any medical dispositions he may have had. The full genetic information on Otzi proved to be a treasure trove, providing vital clues to what he looked like, and who his ancestors were. The findings throw light on a longstanding archaeological debate about whether farming was spread by a movement of people or by local hunter-gatherer populations adopting the technology of agriculture. The analysis showed that Otzi’s ancestors belonged to an early wave of farmers who migrated into Europe beginning around 7,000 years ago and eventually replaced the ancient hunter-gatherer way of life.
“NOVA” is there when Gary has the completed replica approved by Otzi expert Dr. Albert Vink. He then delivers the replica to the Dolan DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring (New York) Harbor Laboratory, where scientists, students, and the public can study the Iceman up close, and acquire data on Otzi which previously could not be done with the original mummy.
The real mystery of who Otzi the Iceman was will never entirely be solved. But thanks to the discovery of his body and Gary Staab’s replica model, scientists will know far more than they ever thought they would about the ancient ancestors who lived at a pivotal time in history. Otzi will continue to intrigue and inspire future generations who study him and provide a time portal into the distant past.