After finding traces of ibex meat and primitive wheat in the digestive tract of the 5,300-year-old "Iceman," botanists were surprised to discover six different species of moss. The findings suggest that in his last days alive, this frozen emissary from the past used moss for lunch bags, napkins, camping pillows, toilet paper and even an early antibiotic bandage.
The Iceman, also known as Otzi, represents the world's oldest preserved body. Though it's been 17 years since climbers discovered him frozen high in the Alps, Otzi continues to yield insights into the world of Copper Age Europe.
Researchers agree he was about 45 and was probably killed by an arrow that struck him in the back. But nobody knows much about his way of life, why he was killed, or what brought him to a mountain pass 10,000 feet above sea level.
"The gut contents are like an encoded map and an encoded diary and the challenge is to break the codes so you can work out what his route was during the last three days of his life," said James Dickson, a botanist at Glasgow University and author of a new paper in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany.
Scientists found about 80 moss species overall. Dickson speculated that some got into Otzi's intestines accidentally because he was carrying it for various uses. One type of bog moss, Dickson said, is known to have antibiotic properties, and it had to have come from a valley at least 15 miles from Otzi's high-altitude resting place.
It seems plausible that Otzi would have needed first aid since he bore a puncture wound in his right hand, perhaps from some final struggle, or he may have been nursing the wound for days before being fatally shot.
- Faye Flam