When the 5,300-year-old body of a Stone Age man was discovered entombed in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, it was hailed as one of the most significant archeological finds ever. Then the deaths began.
These were strange, often accidental deaths of people who had come into close contact with the frozen corpse, dubbed Oetzi. There was talk of a curse. Could it be that the Iceman was angry at being disturbed from his 53 century-long slumber?
Yesterday it was revealed that Oetzi (found in the Oetzal Alps) had claimed his seventh 'victim': an Australian-based scientist, Tom Loy, who carried out ground-breaking DNA analysis on the corpse. His colleagues are in shock, his family bereft. And even those who disparage curses as superstitious nonsense are experiencing, perhaps, the tiniest of shivers.
Dr Loy was 63, a Californian-born molecular biologist who joined the University of Queensland a decade ago after gaining a doctorate from the Australian National University in Canberra. He headed a team that minutely studied Oetzi, together with his prehistoric tools and weapons.
Helmut and Erika Simon, a German couple who were keen mountaineers, had stumbled across the cadaver, perfectly preserved, wearing a woven grass cloak, goatskin leggings and bearskin hat. Nearby were a bow and arrows, a stone-tipped knife, an antler- skinning tool and a copper-headed axe. Oetzi had died, clearly, while out hunting. Early theories suggested he perished after an accident, alone.
Dr Loy's research soon debunked that idea. He and his team identified four different types of blood on Oetzi's clothes and tools, all belonging to other people. He surmised that the Iceman had been with a comrade, and had died after a territorial battle with rivals. Possibly he had carried a wounded companion some distance, before depositing his tools and weapons and lying down to die.
Dr Loy humanised our ancient ancestor, endowing him with a personality and tracing the last moments before his demise. The Californian won international acclaim for his work, which was the subject of several television documentaries.
A fortnight ago, he was found dead at his home in Brisbane. It was only yesterday, ahead of a memorial service on Monday, that the news emerged.
His brother, Gareth, who has travelled to Australia for the service, told The Australian newspaper that an autopsy had proved inconclusive. The coroner ruled out foul play, stating that he had died of natural causes, or an accident, or both.
Gareth Loy, however, said his brother had not been a well man. Twelve years ago, just after starting work on the Oetzi project, he had been diagnosed as suffering from a hereditary condition that caused his blood to clot. Asked about the issue of a curse, Mr Loy said that it had never been a subject of discussion between them.
Academics, of course, pour scorn on such notions. Tom Loy's colleagues at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience refused to comment yesterday. But one university source said staff were deeply upset, not only by his death, but by all the speculation about a curse.
'They feel that it trivialises his death, and does not do justice to his life and work,' said the source. 'He was a brilliant academic, and that is how his colleagues want to remember him.'
But for others, the link between Mr Loy's death and that of other men associated with Oetzi is irresistible. Mr Simon, 67, met a strikingly similar end to the man whom he chanced across in an icy tomb in northern Italy, near the Austrian border. A retired caretaker from Nuremberg, he was hiking through the snow with his wife when they made the historic find in September 1991. But the event came to haunt the couple, for they grew embittered by the world's failure to recognise the role that they played, and to recompense them financially.
In October last year, Mr Simon went walking in Austria, barely 100 miles from the spot where he encountered Oetzi. …