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4 February 2006
Alpine ice man may have been sterile

Oetzi, the prehistoric man frozen in a glacier for 5,300 years, could have been infertile, a new study suggests. Genetic research, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, also confirms that his roots probably lie in Central Europe.
     Oetzi's body was found in the melting ice of the Schnalstal glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991. Examination of his remains has already revealed the Copper Age man almost certainly died as a result of a fight. The assessment is based on the presence of an arrowhead that is lodged in his back and extensive cuts to his hands.
     The scientists behind the latest genetic research now speculate that Oetzi's possible sterility could have been a factor that led to this violent end. Dr Franco Rollo, from the University of Camerino, and colleagues examined stretches of DNA taken from cells in the iceman's intestines. The scientists found two typical mutations common among men with reduced sperm mobility. A high percentage of men with such a condition are sterile. "Insofar as the 'iceman' was found to possess both mutations, the possibility that he was unable to father offspring cannot be eliminated," the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in the Alpine town of Bolzano said in a statement.
     Dr Rollo said the idea that Oetzi might have been infertile was intriguing, and while emphasising that this was purely speculation, he noted it would be interesting to pursue the idea further. "At the moment, purely as a matter of speculation, I am in touch with some cultural anthropologists, medical anthropologists and archaeologists to obtain information on what this [male infertility] could have meant in primitive society," he added. "The lack of a family or clan could may represent a kind of social weakness."
     At first it was thought Oetzi had died from exposure to the cold, but the wounds on his hands and the arrowhead would seem to indicate he died as a result of injuries he received in a fight. Given the suggestion that Oetzi may have been infertile, Dr Rollo wondered whether the social implications of this could have played a role in the chain of events that led to a confrontation.
     The team also looked at patterns in Oetzi's DNA to try to establish more information about his roots. The scientists discovered that he belonged to the K1 subdivision of the haplogroup known as K. Haplogroups can be described as the branches of the human genealogical tree. Each haplogroup corresponds to early human migrations to the various continents or geographical regions. K is a comparatively rare haplogroup amongst Europeans, but it has higher frequencies in populations in Ladin in the south of the Alps, and also the Oetzal area to the north. But Dr Rollo cautioned against the certainty of these results because knowledge of the group's distribution is still poor and there are only small population samples to compare with it.

Sources: BBC News, Reuters (3 February 2006)

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