For the past two decades, scientists have analyzed every minute detail of Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old natural mummy found in the ice of Italy’s Ötztal Alps. But one remaining mystery was the origin of his clothing, made of leather and fur. Thanks to sophisticated DNA sequencing techniques, a team of scientists has now determined how the clothes were made – and discovered something surprising about Ötzi’s domestic habits.
Ötzi lived during the Copper Age, when humans had been taming animals for several thousand years, and our advanced technologies include stone tools and fired pottery. We know from previous studies that Ötzi was probably killed by an arrow and a blow to the head. We also know that he suffered from arthritis and ate a meal of deer and berries before he died.
The team’s new findings, published in Natural Science Reports, are as much a demonstration of DNA sequencing wizardry as they are about old fashion. It is incredibly difficult to extract genetic material from tanned hides because they are generally scraped, heated and exposed to fatty acids. In addition, the skins and furs themselves had disintegrated. But the researchers used different methods to extract DNA from the skins that made up Ötzi’s shoelace, hat, loincloth, jackets, leggings and quiver. First, they compared the DNA strands they found with other mapped genomes to identify species. Next, the researchers targeted very small, specific regions in the DNA for reconstruction to learn more about the animals’ relationships to today’s domesticated races.
What is immediately interesting about Ötzi’s clothing is how many animals were used. His shoelace was from a cow, while his loincloth and parts of his fur coats were from sheep. Other parts of the coats and his gaiters were goats. His coats had clearly been mended several times, the leather pieces “chosen at random” from “at least four sheep and two goats”. Old leather decayed quickly, so it was likely that he added new strips of leather as old ones fell apart.
The surprise came when DNA sequencing revealed that his hat was made from brown bear skin and his quiver from a wild deer. Previously, scientists believed that Ötzi had a predominantly agricultural lifestyle, but it is now clear that the people of Ötzi also did a lot of hunting. Previous studies revealed red deer meat in Ötzi’s stomach, so these bits from two deer species plus the brown bear’s hat show that Ötzi lived in a community that ate a variety of animals, both wild and domestic.
Most of Ötzi’s clothing was from domesticated cattle, goats and sheep. DNA analysis revealed that these animals came from domesticated lines that still graze peacefully in Europe. So there is a remarkable continuity in European domestic animals, probably because herds are passed down from generation to generation. Ötzi’s leggings also suggest a burgeoning fashion tradition: they are made entirely of goatskin, just like a similar 4,500-year-old pair of leggings discovered in Switzerland. It’s possible, the researchers write, that Copper Age people preferred to use goat for their gaiters, either out of fashion or because of its “insulating potential.”
We’ll never know if Ötzi was a fashion board in his goat leggings and bear hat or ran for his life in a hastily patched coat. But his leather and colorful gear betrayed that he came from a people whose eating and grooming habits were quite diverse. They were not content with just a few domesticated species; they hunted other types of game when it suited them. And Ötzi at least repaired his clothes as much as possible, so leather was clearly valuable enough to be reused.
Discoveries like these give us a rare glimpse into the domestic life of a vanished people.
Natural Science Reports2016. DOI: 10.1038/srep31279
Frame image from Institute for Mummies and the Iceman