A heavily-tattooed, leather-clad drifter carrying drugs and several weapons is whacked. Male, five-foot-two, 110 pounds, approximately forty-five years old. Goes by the name Ötzi the Iceman. Assailant unknown.
In spite of the urban-hip underworld details, the deceased is of course the dude deep-frozen for more than 5,000 years in the Ötztal Alps of northern Italy and exhumed in 1991. NOVA has made its second special about this most bodacious mummy, titled “Iceman Reborn” (the first was “Iceman Murder Mystery” in 2011), airing Wednesday, 2/17 at 9p.m. ET (check local listings) because cutting-edge technologies have disclosed new facts about his identity and way of life. CSI meets Unsolved Mysteries, but with class. (That's a life-sized model reconstructing how he might have looked, above.)
Here are a few (semi-spoiler alert):
Drifter: Was he a farmer or a hunter gatherer? In the Iceman’s paleo days, farming was becoming more prevalent in southern Europe. But the contents of Ötzi’s stomach (his last supper also was “nicely” preserved and we get to see it!) contained a combination of hunted meat and cultivated wheat.
Add to that arthritis and other damage in his lower back and knees, and we get a portrait of a man who spent most of his waking time not stooping like a farmer but walking great distances.
Which brings us to the drugs: two varieties of mushroom. One – to the astonishment and delight of the documentary’s bio-pharmacologist – is an anti-inflammatory that would have provided some relief for the Iceman’s joint pain. This guy, and his culture, knew their s**t!
The weapons: an ax, a knife, a bow, a quiver with fourteen arrows didn’t prevent him from getting an arrowhead lodged in a major artery. His killer left him to die amid some boulders that provided protection against water flows that could have swept him away before they froze.
The tattoos: by far one of the chillest parts of the story. Ötzi had sixty-one tatts. But the simple black bars, according to the experts, were neither symbolic nor decorative. If not that, then what??? Like the ‘shrooms, they were probably medicinal. The Iceman used a sharp tool to poke fireplace ash into his epidermis at the sites of his back, knee, and abdominal (he also had gallstones) pain. Akin to acupuncture, the tattooing process likely offered some chronic pain relief.
I’ll stop with the reveals, but there are more, thanks to CT scans, x-rays, and other high-tech intrusions. (You think your privacy is being invaded?) DNA analysis, for example, places Ötzi in a very unlikely birthplace. Every so often, as technology advances, Ötzi is rolled out of his custom-built freezer for a new round of probing.
And then there’s 3-D printing. On the investigator side, the film’s key character is paleo-sculptor Gary Staab, who is granted a rare visit to the freezer, where Ötzi is scanned with lasers and printed out of plastic. Staab takes the model back to his Missouri studio to painstakingly reconstruct a flesh and bone likeness almost indistinguishable from the real thing. It seems right after Ötzi died, an animal gnawed on his left butt cheek, making quite a mess of it. Reconstructing that mess of fang-shredded flesh became Staab’s greatest professional challenge. Well, so you have your own particular career thrills, right?
But nothing detracts from the star-power charisma of Ötzi. His left arm frozen horizontally across his chest, his upper lip permanently pushed up as he lay face-down dying, his sinewy muscles and boney hands, his dark brown eye sockets starring back – we can’t get enough of him.
As a young girl put it after getting a look at Staab’s recreation, “He’s awesome. Coolest dead guy in the world.”