If you were thinking that the ancient Alpine traveler known as Otzi — often known simply as Iceman — scraped by on a diet of foraged grasses and berries, you’d be very wrong.
A comprehensive study of his stomach contents reveals that Otzi, who lived roughly 5,300 years ago in the Eastern Alps of Italy, died with a belly full of fatty meat, some whole seeds from the einkorn wheat plant, and maybe a bit of goat’s milk or cheese — all eaten just a couple of hours before he died.
Judging from the remnants of plant spores found in his gut, the Iceman may have set off from home with a mobile meal of smoked or dried meat wrapped in the large, coarse leaves of a bracken fern.
It was not a bad picnic for a peripatetic member of a primitive society of hunter-gatherer-farmers. There were traces of herbs, perhaps used to flavor the meat or a bread made from grains we would now call “ancient.” The meat came from an ibex — a wild goat species also known as the steinbock — and red deer, both plentiful in the area.
So much for some researchers’ conviction, based of an early analysis of his hair, that Otzi was a vegetarian.
Close to half of what remained in his stomach was fat from the meats he consumed. That fat would have given his last meal the luxurious mouthfeel of bacon.
The muscle-and-heart meat would have delivered the satiating properties of protein. It was fuel well-suited to the rigors of stalking, hunting and possibly shepherding animals in the cold, high Alps.
In time, this fatty, carnivorous diet would probably have clogged Otzi’s arteries. But since Iceman was unlikely to survive into anything resembling modern-day old age, that would probably not have been the death of him. (He is estimated to have been roughly 45 when he died and had probably outlived most of his contemporaries.)
As food-packaging goes, bracken fern is a more questionable choice: It can cause bleeding and anemia when ingested.
But what killed Otzi in the end appears to have been an arrow to the back. And what happened at some point following his death — either a deliberate burial or a final accidental fall into a glacial ravine — caused his remains to be frozen and mummified until their discovery by hikers in 1991.
Dr. Gregory S. Thomas, a cardiologist with MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute in Long Beach, Calif., called Otzi “the best preserved ancient mummy ever discovered.”