The Iceman's Last Days-The Testimony of Ostrya Carpinifolia

By Waateringe, W. Groenman-van | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Iceman's Last Days-The Testimony of Ostrya Carpinifolia


Waateringe, W. Groenman-van, Antiquity


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Introduction

The recent article by Vanzetti et al. (2010) raises the possibility that the Copper Age Iceman, whose body was discovered high in the Tyrolean Alps, did not die in the ice, but was actually the subject of formal burial. This interpretation has been supported by other subsequent contributions to Antiquity (Carrancini & Mattiol? 2011; Fasolo 2011). However, the resolution of this ancient mystery is still impeded by uncertainty over the season of death. Vanzetti et al. comment (2010: 688):

   In his last days he was roaming at different altitudes in
   springtime, as suggested by the variety of the pollen still in his
   gut (Oeggl et al. 2007). This detailed pollen analysis suggests
   April as the most probable month for his last meal (Oeggl 2009:
   fig. 11). At this time (spring) the Tisenjoch pass was certainly
   covered in snow. However, the first pollen analyses from the ice
   surrounding the Iceman pointed to its formation between late summer
   and early autumn (Bortenschlager et al. 1992: 308, Abb. 2). There
   is thus an apparent mismatch between his time of death (April) and
   his time of burial (August/September).

Amongst the pollen in the Iceman's gut was an extremely high percentage (more than 50 per cent) of Ostrya carpinifolia (Hop Hornbeam, fam. Betulaceae) (Oeggl 2000: 93). This ?s ?n sharp contrast with percentages for Ostrya carpinifolia in natural deposits around 3000 BC of around 2 per cent (Krai 1979; Huntley & Birks 1983). In a previous study, I demonstrated experimentally that such a concentration was sufficiently high to match the percentage of Ostrya carpinifolia pollen trapped in its own bark, which could therefore have been its source (Groenman-van Waateringe 1998; here Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Thus the extremely high percentage of Ostrya pollen in the colon of the Iceman cannot easily be explained by an unintentional intake of contaminated water, air or food (Oeggl 2000: 93). Such a high percentage from the environment could only be explained in an area directly beneath the tree itself. But if the Iceman by chance had lingered under such a tree, one would expect the presence of this pollen to be evident also on his clothes. This, however, was not the case (Groenman-van Waateringe 1993). Some Ostrya pollen grains were found on his cap, but with a level not exceeding 0.5 per cent of the arboreal pollen (analysis by the author, unpublished). A direct intake of pollen, for example in the form of honey, should also be considered. However, Hop Hornbeam is wind-pollinated and not insect-pollinated and today is therefore never a substantial component in the honey of the region, despite its dominance in the vegetation nowadays (Oeggl 2000: 97).

Therefore for the pollen to have arrived in such quantities in the gut, the Iceman must have been ingesting it, perhaps by chewing a piece of bark, which he presumably did for medicinal purposes (Groenman-van Waateringe 1998: 290). In this paper I develop this idea, addressing the questions of what this implies about the season of death, and what benefits might be obtained from the bark of the Hop Hornbeam.

Season of death

The season of death remains uncertain. Although the presence of fresh Acer platanoides leaves, a sloe berry stone (Bortenschlager et al. 1992) and the remains of two fully developed Lipoptena cervi (Gothe & Scholl 1992) point to early autumn, Oeggl (2000, 2009) has put forward the idea that the Iceman died in spring, because the pollen of Ostrya carpinifolia was found with its cytoplasmic interior (the cellular microgametophyte) still intact ('fresh' pollen). According to Oeggl, as the resistance of the pollen wall is not matched by its contents, the latter, because of oxidation, can only be found shortly (days to a few weeks) after the release of the pollen into the air. This would mean that the intake of the Ostrya pollen had to be during its flowering season, i. …

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