World's most famous frozen corpse has true appearance revealed

From darker skin to baldness, tech advances unveil Ötzi the Iceman's true physical attributes post-DNA contamination.
Sade Agard
Since 2012, which is when Ötzi’s genome was sequenced for the first time, DNA sequencing technologies have advanced enormously.
Since 2012, which is when Ötzi’s genome was sequenced for the first time, DNA sequencing technologies have advanced enormously.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Eurac/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz 

Ötzi, the renowned frozen mummy, has undergone a remarkable transformation in our understanding of his appearance, as unveiled by a recent study published in Cell Genomics on August 16.

From a complexion darker than anticipated to insights about his hair, advancements in technology have shattered misconceptions derived from earlier examinations of the 'Iceman.'

This new research not only reshapes our perception of Ötzi's physical traits but also highlights the incredible role that modern technology plays in improving our understanding of the past.

Unveiling Ötzi's appearance

In 1991, hikers stumbled upon Ötzi's 5,300-year-old remains in the Alps near the Italian–Austrian border. Exceptionally well-preserved, his body has become a focal point of scientific study.

Researchers have already unearthed details about his health and habits, including hardened arteries, tattoos, and his final meal of ibex.

Furthermore, Ötzi had an arrow in his back at the time of death, potentially causing his demise.

Now, a fresh study has revealed that Ötzi's skin color might have been even darker than initially believed—potentially one of the darkest among his European contemporaries.

Anthropologist Albert Zink, a co-author of the study and head of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, said in a press release:

"It was previously thought that the mummy's skin had darkened during its preservation in the ice, but presumably what we see now is actually largely Ötzi's original skin color."

Moreover, the study dispels misconceptions about Ötzi's hair. 

Contrary to popular belief, the mature man probably possessed, at most, a sparse crown of hair, with genes indicating a predisposition to baldness. This revelation might clarify why minimal hair was found on the mummy.

Beyond his appearance, Ötzi's genome hints at health risks like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Despite his genetic predisposition, the authors suggest his healthy lifestyle might have kept these factors at bay.

Misconceptions about Ötzi's ancestry 

The genetic makeup of today's Europeans is like a mosaic composed of three main ancestral groups. 

These include the western hunter-gatherers, early Anatolian farmers who moved in around 8,000 years ago, and Steppe Herders from Eastern Europe who joined the mix about 4,900 years ago.

Initial genetic analysis of Ötzi's genome, the renowned frozen mummy, unveiled traces of these Steppe Herders. 

However, refined findings from the new study challenge this perspective due to a revelation about the original sample's contamination with modern DNA.

Since that study, technological leaps in sequencing and a surge in fully decoded genomes from prehistoric Europeans have reshaped the knowledge landscape, enabling researchers to compare Ötzi's genetic code with that of his contemporaries.

This latest study concludes that Ötzi hailed from a relatively isolated population with minimal interactions with other European groups. 

Surprisingly, it also revealed no traces of Eastern European Steppe Herders in Ötzi's genome as previously thought, and his proportion of hunter-gatherer genes is remarkably low.

Co-author Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig explained, "Genetically, his ancestors seem to have arrived directly from Anatolia without mixing with hunter-gatherer groups."

The complete study was published in Cell Genomics on August 16 and can be found here.

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