Ancient Fashion: DNA Analysis Reveals What Otzi The Iceman Wore When He Died


Since Otzi the Iceman was discovered on a glacier near the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, his mummified body has been a constant source of study, with researchers working laboriously to discover whatever they can about one of humanity's ancestors. Now, researchers have discovered yet another detail about the iceman: what he wore when he died.

Researchers had a solid idea about many aspects of Otzi's life, such as how he died and what his diet consisted of prior to his end, but what he had on at the time continued to elude them. Otzi was found with various leather clothing when he was discovered all those years ago, but due to the limitations of DNA study at the time, they couldn't narrow what he wore down to the species level.

Now, thanks to advancements made in that field, not only have researchers discovered what types of leather Otzi wore, but the discovery has revealed quite a bit about his lifestyle.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that Otzi's clothes were comprised of at least five five different animals when he met his end.

Specifically, these were:

 – Leggings made from goat skin

 – A shoelace of cow leather

 – A sheep leather loincloth

 – A quiver made of roe deer

 – A fur hat with straps, made from brown bear

 – A coat of many fragments, incorporating both sheep and goat skin

To reach this conclusion, researchers analyzed the leathers' mitochondrial DNA — the separate, smaller genome found in the tiny compartments that turn food into energy inside living cells.

"We analyzed nine samples and for each one, we were able to reconstruct either a whole mitogenome or a partial mitogenome," said the paper's first author Niall O'Sullivan, a PhD student at University College Dublin based at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. "We were very happy with that."

While being able to crack a 25-year-old puzzle was a momentous occasion in and of itself, the one of two implications that this discovery suggests is equally important.

On one hand, the findings suggests that Copper Age people carefully chose between different wild and domesticated animals when looking for materials to make their clothes. For example, cow leather, which was found in Otzi's shoes, was the sturdiest material on his body, suggesting his boots were made for walking. Sheep leather, which made up parts of his striped coat, would have kept him warmer than other materials.

On the other hand, the presence of multiple types of leather could also suggest that choosing articles of clothing was approached haphazardly, with icemen simply picking what they had readily available.

Regardless of the outcome, however, it will only serve to clarify what researchers already knew.

"It clarifies what we already knew — that the Iceman was an agropastoralist; that the majority [of] the food and resources that he used were of domestic origin."

Of course, that "majority" component is important, as it's possible that Otzi got some of his leathers — or even finished pieces of clothing — by trading with people from other regions. Unfortunately, unless researchers happen to come across another similarly well-preserved specimen, they'll never know for sure.

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