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16 August 2003
Did Oetzi die in boundary dispute?

DNA analysis of blood samples found on the clothing and equipment of 5,300-year-old Oetzi the Iceman suggests that at least four different people were involved in the events that led up to his death. Oetzi was discovered high in the Italian Alps in 1991 with a collection of weapons that included a bronze axe, bow, a quiver of arrows, a flint dagger and a smaller, sharper knife. X-ray examination in 2001 revealed that Oetzi had a flint arrowhead buried in his back, close to the lung. The entry wound had been stitched. At that time it was thought that the Iceman may have died as the result of a hunting accident. But the DNA patterns, together with what are thought to be defensive wounds on hands, wrists and rib cage, indicate that Oetzi may have been involved in a fatal skirmish after hunting in or close to the territory of a neighbouring, hostile, people.
     Traces of three different mitochondrial DNA sequences were found on Oetzi's flint dagger, on an arrowhead and on a broken shaft in his birch bark quiver. These traces, together with the defensive wounds, point to a conflict as the cause of death.
     Molecular archaeologist Dr. Tom Loy, of Queensland University in Brisbane Australia, carried out the DNA research, and has proposed that Oetzi specialised in hunting the high alpine passes for ibex and chamois. He was attacked in disputed boundary territory but fought back and inflicted some damage on his adversaries. "I think one of the things we could advance is that he shot at least two different people and retrieved his arrow, but then he shot at something else and missed, shattering his arrow," says Dr. Loy. He must have also defended himself with the flint dagger that was found clutched in his hand. A fourth DNA sample from the back of Oetzi's leather coat is taken as indication that he may have supported a companion on his shoulders after the fight. The companion tended his wounds and arranged his body and equipment after death.
     Dr. Loy explains: "His gear was stacked up neatly. He didn't keel over, although he was probably tired, exhausted and hurt like hell." The fact that he was found with his weapons and other equipment intact is seen as evidence that he died some time after the incident, otherwise his assailants would have retrieved these valuable items. Although the back wound would have been ultimately fatal, it is possible that he could have survived for 24 - 48 hours.
     No trace has yet been found of the Iceman's companion or assailants. But with the current heatwave melting icefields to an unprecedented extent, the chances of further discoveries have never been better. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Oetzi's final resting place, is organising an expedition to the high passes at the end of August in the hope of finding more clues to this Copper Age drama.

Sources: news.com.au (11 August 2003); Reuters, Independent, Guardian (13 August 2003)

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