Notes on the death of Oetzi the iceman

Disclaimer: this is a work in progress. No liability is accepted for mistakes in this text. The information hereby provided should be used in teaching only under appropriate supervision. The following text is a collection of unpublished notes. Future updates will include references.



  1. One arrow hit Oetzi on the back but did not cause him to die.
  2. Possible presence at the location of Oetzi's death of other people, who did not die nor help Oetzi. His clothes were found separated from the body, though in its vicinity.
  3. Several blood stains have been found on his tools. DNA analyses prove that they are from four other individuals. Possible warfare scenario.
  4. Several scares on Oetzi's body, e.g. arrowhead on shoulder and deep wound on hand.
  5. Location of death was not being used for any practical purpose at the time of Oetzi's death. Animal droppings of wild animals (goats) suggest absence of livestock with Oetzi. In addition, the path he was on was scarcely practicable at the time of his death and a difficult way to reach another valley.
  6. Oetzi was prepared for the fatal journey: his clothing was adequate for the high altitude environment.
  7. Southern way would have been the most practical way for Oetzi to leave the valley.
  8. Age (around 46) and copper axe suggest that Oetzi was a chieftain or senior warrior within his community.
  9. If other people was available, they respected Oetzi's body: nothing has been stolen, especially copper axe.
  10. Since Oetzi did not die as a result of a direct attack, and did not lay in a sheltered location, it seems plausible that the weather at the time of his death was stormy and contributed to his death.
  11. Oetzi was autochthonous of the area and certainly knew very well the geography of his environment. He probably was an experienced mountaineer.


  1. Why did Oetzi chose to cross a high altitude pass apparently on his own and in bad or uncertain weather? -Since Oetzi was experienced of the area, he must have known of the risks posed by mountains. The ascension would have been easier if he attempted at it with others, in a group.
  2. If invaders or other enemies were responsible for the violence inferable from blood stains, and he was the leader or senior warrior of a community, where the other members of his community were when he died?
  3. Why some of his arrows were not ready for use and two were broken (perhaps deliberately de-functionalised), but his copper axe and his dagger remained intact?



  1. Death by hypothermia.

    Pros: it accounts for the final moments. Cons: it does not explain the circumstances.


  2. Death occurs in warfare circumstances.

    Pros: it accounts for wounds, blood stains and weaponry. Cons: it does not explain how a man who engaged in fighting several individuals probably in the valley or at least at altitudes lower than that of the location of his death and presumably killed all of them ended up at high altitudes, probably in bad weather. If Oetzi succeeded in defeating or at least survive those who attempted to murder him, he should have attempted the more practicable southern route from the valley. He may have survived keeping himself at distance from artificial hazards such as paths and villages where he could have been intercepted and outnumbered by enemies and from naturals hazards such as high mountains. If the valley had been cut off on the south and it was too risky that direction, certainly reaching some hidden shelter towards the high mountains would have been the most successful strategy rather than proceeding to death on the open.


  3. Copper axe, metallurgy and shamanic practices. Was Oetzi a metallurgist and/or shaman? Was the copper axe really so precious?

    Pros: the extraordinary copper axe and the "healing" tattoos present only on areas of the body affected by arthritis are sufficient evidence that some knowledge of metallurgy and shamanic practices can be related to Oetzi. Cons: Oetzi is the user of such practices; he is the warrior using the axe and the patient who would have received and benefited from tattoos. there is no evidence suggesting that Oetzi was himself a metallurgist or shaman. The copper axe was really precious in that area and at that time, but given the geographic location, it would have been commoner towards the south. The fact that the axe was probably extremely rare, perhaps unique, in the valley would have deterred robbers within the community, who would have never been able to demonstrate they were the legitimate proprietors. The skills required for reaching high altitudes would also have been uncommon and probably limited to the people in the valley, excluding foreign individuals from southern valleys, where there are no high mountains to practise on.


  4. Ritual sacrifice.

Pros: it accounts for the unusual circumstances of the death on high terrain, the possible artificial disturbances to the body, such as the breaking of two arrows, and the apparent extreme cruelty within a small community. Oetzi would have ritually fought with some members of the community and then left dying on sacred ground. Nothing would have been stolen. Cons: this hypothesis does not explain the ferocious fighting of which the wounds on Oetzi's body are evidence of. An arrow on the back and a deep cut on the hand suggest that murder was attempted. The number of possible aggressors, four, probably faced at intervals, would also be uncommon. There is no evidence of sacred objects, or unusual practices, where Oetzi died. It seems unlikely ritual (repetitive) practice in a small community to have several members of the community trying to kill one armed person and potentially dying or being wounded themselves in the process, then chase him up to high ground regardless of the weather and, once the victim would have collapsed exhausted, watch him die and leave.


Making sense of the evidence


None of the explanations presented so far fully explains the evidence. A sound explanation may be possible only when further evidence will become available. However, it is possible to outline a few possibilities for now.

To begin with, we know that Oetzi was a member of a small community located in a closed valley in the southern Alps. The valley is accessible from the south, and delimited by high mountains on the other sides. There is no easy way outside the southern pass and no evidence of exchanges with people on the northern Alps. The tools and techniques available to Oetzi were all typical of southern cultures. The valley does not appear to have been a strategic point or have offered any facility that was unavailable in other nearby areas. The death of Oetzi is unusual because he had been engaged in fighting with at least four people in a short period of one to two days, which presumably took place in the valley. He survived all of them, but dies while on high altitude, heading northwards, probably in a nearby valley using a difficult pass rather than attempting to cross the Alps. He is prepared to the journey, but apparently was alone and dies on the open. He may have been exhausted by the happenings of the previous hours. He knew the terrain, the paths, probably the people including the assailants and was armed. His death is not directly imputable to a specific wound, rather he is weakened by wounds and ultimately dies of hypothermia. His most precious tool, the copper axe, remains with him. Some people may have reached him while dying or just afterwards. They may have removed the clothes, broken the functional arrows and perhaps buried on the snow as for a ritual deposition, leaving his possessions intact. However, all this may have been caused by natural causes. The body may have been covered in the snowfall and then subjected by small movements of the snow and eventually partial and temporary thawing that could have caused the decay of his most external layer of skin.


Oetzi appears to have been a member of the elite of the small community he belonged to. The copper axe, the advanced age, the relative good health for a warrior of that age at that time, all suggest this scenario. He was quite experienced and skilled both as mountaineer and warrior according to the evidence. He knew the correct clothing to reach high altitudes and could fight and survive several assailants in a short period. This particular social position made him a possible target of violence motivated either by the aspiration of conquering new territories and subjugate the living communities or the desire of replacing Oetzi as leader of the community. The brutal attacks on Oetzi are probably planned and focussed. A robbery or invasion would have most likely ended in a single event of general slaughter at the village or in a specific location. It does not seem justifiable on the basis of the evidence an attack with the purpose of wiping out the entire existing community from a closed valley and motivated enough in their intent to follow a single escapee up to high altitude to ensure his death. If Oetzi enjoyed a high social status, the he was the target. Because of this, most resources would be spent on him, explaining the several clashes with other people and possibly even a chase up to high ground. Movement on the valley and south of the valley would have been impossible for him if everybody was looking just for him. Conversely, the high social status may have meant some support, perhaps passive, from the local community. He may have been able to obtain food and equipment for the fatal journey from members of the community, especially relatives, but not shelter or open support. This would explain the unravelling of the events through one or two days and possibly a chase up to the mountain. The latter would have become a tough test of endurance for Oetzi, who would not have been able to disappear out of sight from the chasers in a shelter. Exhausted, whether finally reached by the chasers or not, he would die. If reached, the chasers would respect him as former chief and leave his distinctive copper axe with him. Similarly to Roman "damnatio memoriae", the strategy would be to forget the defeated chief, to obliterate his memory, but possibly respect him while still in life. Thus, removing some clothes and leaving hem nearby or breaking two arrows would be enough to ensure the death of the former chief.


The enemy that Oetzi faced is not easily identifiable, but the period of the events, Springtime between April and May according to archaeobotanical analyses, provides a clue. This is the period of surprise attacks in ancient warfare. Warfare was often impracticable in Winter, and this was certainly true in the Alps. For example, the ancient Greeks normally traded and fought in Summer, at most starting operations to the first mild days of Spring when surprise was needed or long distances had to be travelled. It is therefore plausible that people from the south decided to secure the valley for some reason. The prolonged fights with one man and his possibly unwitnessed death on the mountains may have been due to the unexpected weather, which is generally colder and stormier raising in altitude, regardless of the month. In other words, possible invaders may not have been able to obtain the swift victory they were expecting.


Of course, other scenarios are possible, but less probable. If members of the Oetzi's community had been involved in his murder, then perhaps a swift betrayal would have sealed his fate. Possible is also a role of Oetzi in the community other than chieftain. He may have been a successful warrior with aspirations of becoming leader. Caution is therefore necessary because we cannot test most hypotheses and we enter the domain of speculation. However, because of the remote location and tiny valley, the community probably was small and therefore the social relationships among its members relatively simple. Thus, a surprise invasion from south to gain firm control of the tiny valley remains the most probable scenario. Since each valley in the area has a different microclimate depending on altitude, mistakes in forecasting the conditions of the ground in early Spring can be made even by people living in a nearby valley. The copper axe and many blood stains on Oetzi's tools confirm that he was an important and successful warrior, so he was probably a special target. Oetzi then died while escaping the enemy that he fought in the last days of his life. This is perhaps the only safe conclusion of our reconstruction.

23 March 2005

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