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6 December 2008
Iceman Oetzi's last supper

From the analysis of the intestinal contents of the 5,200-year-old Iceman from the Eastern Alps, Professor James Dickson from the University of Glasgow in the UK and his team have shed some light on the mummy's lifestyle and some of the events leading up to his death. By identifying six different mosses in his alimentary tract, they suggest that the Iceman may have travelled, injured himself and dressed his wounds.
     The Iceman is the first glacier mummy to have fragments of mosses in his intestine. This is surprising as mosses are neither palatable nor nutritious and there are few reports of mosses used for internal medical treatments. Rather, mosses recovered from archaeological sites tend to have been used for stuffing, wiping and wrapping. Dickson and colleagues studied the moss remains from the intestines of the Iceman on microscope slides, to find out more about his lifestyle and events during the last few days of his life. Their paper describes in detail the six different mosses identified and seeks to provide answers to two key questions in each case. Firstly, where did the Iceman come in contact with each species; secondly, how did each come to enter his alimentary tract. In particular, the authors of the new article in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany suggest that one type of moss is likely to have been used to wrap food, another is likely to have been swallowed when the Iceman drank water during the last few days of his life, and yet another would have been used as a wound dressing. One type of moss in the Iceman's gut is not known in the region where the mummy was found, implying that the Iceman must have travelled.
     Numerous byzantine techniques have been involved, from stable isotope analysis to sequential sampling of food residues found in Otzi's digestive tract, painstakingly extracted in the specialist refrigerated cell at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, northern Italy, where Otzi's body is stored at a constant temperature of -6C. Commenting on his most recent discovery from Otzi's intestines, Prof Dickson suggests one type of moss found, Sphagnum imbricatum, is a natural antiseptic and could have been used to heal wounds that were found on his back and hands. Another moss is believed to have been used to wrap his food and keep it fresh.  "If he knew of the useful properties of bog mosses, as seems plausible, then he may have gathered some to staunch the wound or wounds," Prof Dickson said.
     Other papers in the same issue of Vegetation History and Archaeobotany look at subfossil caprine dung from the discovery site of the Iceman, plant economy and village life in Neolithic lake dwellings at the time of the Alpine Iceman, and the significance of the Tyrolean Iceman for the archaeobotany of Central Europe.

Source: ScienceDaily (2 December 2008), Scotsman (5 December 2008)

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