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Ancient Iceman Otzi's Last Meal Includes Toxic Fern Bracken

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Stomach contents of Otzi the Iceman have revealed clues about the food he had eaten hours before he was killed during an ambush attack about 5,300 years ago.

Wild Meat, Whole Wheat Seeds, And Toxic Fern

In a new study, which was published in the journal Current Biology on July 12, researchers reported that the ancient hunter's last meal included the meat and fat from wild animals and whole wheat seeds.

Study researcher Albert Zink, from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy, and colleagues also noted the high amount of fat in the Iceman's last meal.

"By using a complementary multi-omics approach combined with microscopy, we reconstructed the Iceman's last meal, showing that he has had a remarkably high proportion of fat in his diet," the researchers reported in their study.

Toxic Fern

The team also found traces of the poisonous fern called bracken in the Iceman's stomach.

"Further microscopic analysis of the plant micro-remains identified cereal pollen from the Triticum-type as well as airborne arboreal pollen and an abundance of spores and sporangia from the bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum," the researchers wrote in their study.

Bracken

The fern contains a cancer-causing compound. Consumption of bracken has been associated with cancer such as those that affect the throat and the stomach.

Despite its toxicity, the plant is still consumed by many people today and is even used as a food ingredient. Bracken fiddleheads, for instance, are consumed fresh and cooked; or preserved by salting, sun drying, and pickling.

In Korea, they are used as an ingredient in the mixed rice dish called the bibimbap. The young bracken shoots are also often used in salads and cooking in Japan and Brazil.

Accidental Or Intentional Ingestion?

It is not clear why there was evidence of toxic fern in the stomach of the ancient mummy stomach but scientists have some ideas. They said that it is possible that he used the fern for wrapping his food just like modern humans use plastic wrap today, and accidentally ingested some of the toxic spores from the fern.

Zink also said that the Otzi may have eaten the fern as a type of medicine to treat intestinal parasites. The researcher said that the Iceman appeared to have consumed bracken quite regularly when he was still alive, which means the fern would have been a kind of drug that he intentionally ingested to treat the parasites in his body.

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