Hot on the heels of the protein analysis that determined the animal products used to clothe Iron Age mummies, researchers at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman have discovered new information about Ötzi the Iceman’s couture. The Iceman died and was naturally mummified in the gelid Öztal Alps about 5,300 years ago. The glacier that preserved his body and much of his clothes and accessories isn’t the acidic environment of the Danish peat bogs, but 5,300 years in ice still takes a toll on the structure of leather and fur. Since 1992, researchers have attempted to identify the animal source of the Iceman’s couture by microscopic analysis, peptide analysis of keratin and collagen content, and in 2012, the first genetic analysis extracted mitochondrial DNA from fragments of leather that could not be connected to a specific garment.
A new DNA study has expanded on those earlier studies, taking samples nine samples of leather and hide from the Iceman’s coat, leggings, fur hat, hay-stuffed shoes, loincloth and quiver. They were able to sequence the full mitochondrial genomes of each sample and thus identify the animals from which the materials originated.
The sample from Ötzi’s quiver, which was previously believed to made of chamois leather, was in fact from roe deer hide, although researchers cannot exclude the possibility that the quiver was made from the hide of more than one animal so there could be chamois areas that haven’t been sampled yet. The hat was made from brown bear. The rest of his wardrobe was crafted from domestic animals. A sample from a leather strap on one of the shoes was made from a cattle hide. His leggings, which were thought to be made from wild wolf, fox or dog, were actually made from goat hide. The loincloth, previously believed to have been made from goat hide, was in fact sheep hide. The hide coat was made of a mixture of goat and sheepskin, stitched together from the skins of at least four animals.
The species of goat and sheep are genetically closer to modern domestic sheep than wild ones, which is why researchers believe these were domestic goats and sheep rather than trapped or hunted wild ones. In fact, the species of all the domestic animals — cattle, sheep and goat — used to make the Iceman’s attire are members of haplogroups frequently seen in the same species that live all over Europe today.
That, says [the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman’s Niall] O’Sullivan, shows that while Ötzi was likely to be from an agricultural or herding community, he was an enterprising chap. “It is possible that he might have used his hunting ability to capture and kill a bear, or it [could be] that he came across a dying bear and opportunistically took the skin and used it as leather,” says O’Sullivan. “It shows us that he was opportunistic and resourceful and used to the best of his ability the scarce resources which were available to him in a very harsh environment.”
The iceman, it seems, was also adept at a bit of make do and mend. “The Copper Age neolithic style of making leather was very primitive, clothing would have decomposed and degraded quite quickly under normal circumstances,” says O’Sullivan. “So he had to rapidly change his clothes and he was probably constantly renewing the clothes and augmenting it so that bits didn’t fall apart.”
In addition to the new information about Ötzi and Copper Age clothing revealed by this study, the results have wider implications for future analyses of ancient and prehistoric artifacts. The fact that full mitochondrial genomes were successfully sequenced from samples of degraded skins and furs more than 5,000 years old bodes well for their recovery in other organic archaeological materials.
The full report was published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.