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13 Mummified Facts about Ötzi the Iceman

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When hikers in the Ötztal Alps stumbled on a body melting out of a glacier in September 1991, they thought they had found an unfortunate mountaineer who had disappeared perhaps a couple decades prior. But as soon as it was revealed that the mummified remains dated back 5300 years—and that the man had been murdered by an arrow to the back—researchers knew they had to solve the most fascinating ancient forensic case ever found. Nicknamed Ötzi, the Iceman, and Frozen Fritz, the body of a man who was around 40–50 years old when he died in the Copper Age continues to generate new data about a past era and shows links to contemporary people. In honor of the 25th anniversary of his discovery, here are 13 surprising facts about Ötzi.

1. TWO COUNTRIES FOUGHT OVER HIM.

Ötzi might very well be the oldest person ever subject to a custody dispute. He was discovered in a part of the Alps mountain range that is right on the border between Austria and Italy. Complicating the find is the fact that the glacier in which he was entombed for millennia has shrunk since the official country border was established in 1919. This means that, although the find site of the mummy drains into Austria, the place Ötzi was actually resting is about 100 meters into Italian territory. Originally, Ötzi was studied at Innsbruck University in Austria, but since 1998 he has been displayed and studied at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.

2. HIS DEATH MAY HAVE BEEN RECORDED.

In 1991, an upright, carved stone was found in the town of Laces, near the Ötztal Alps where the Iceman was discovered. Although the stone was reused in modern times for the altar of a church, it dates to the Copper Age, just like Ötzi. One of the carvings on it depicts an archer shooting an arrow into the back of an unarmed man—which bears striking similarities to how scientists know Ötzi died. This circumstantial evidence, though, has not convinced most researchers.

3. HE WAS SICK BEFORE HE WAS KILLED.

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Even though Ötzi was comparatively old when he died, he was not exactly healthy. Whipworm parasite eggs were found in his gut contents, so he probably suffered from nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. His body also produced a full genome of H. pylori, a common stomach bug responsible for ulcers and other tummy troubles. There is also evidence that he had ingested a medicinal herb called hop hornbeam shortly before his death, possibly to help his indigestion. And one fingernail was found to have Beau’s lines, which are created when the immune system is compromised. Ötzi’s fingernail shows he was seriously ill several times in the four months prior to death.

4. HE CARRIED A FIRST AID KIT.

Since Ötzi died while going about his daily life, the artifacts found with him give us a snapshot in time. Two particularly curious objects were spheres of botanical material about the size of walnuts that were strung on leather straps. Analysis of the masses indicated they were a fungus called Piptoporus betulinus. Notably, this fungus—if eaten—both causes diarrhea and can protect against certain mycobacteria. It is likely that Ötzi was ingesting this fungus in an attempt to treat his whipworm—the diarrheal action would have helped him get rid of the parasite’s eggs, while the antibiotic properties of the fungus would have killed off other intestinal bugs. Fungi like this were used for medicinal purposes until the 20th century.

5. HE HOLDS THE RECORD FOR OLDEST TATTOOS IN THE WORLD.

The mummy boasts 61 different tattoos, and they are the oldest physical evidence of tattooing in the world. While the Iceman does not have "MOM" on his biceps or a butterfly on his lower back, his tattoos are still quite interesting. They were made by scratching his skin and rubbing charcoal in the fresh wound, resulting in groups of lines or crosses. It has also been suggested that their placement over joints may have been an attempt to treat pain. As the oldest tattooed person ever found, Ötzi holds a Guinness World Record.

6. HE WORE A VARIETY OF LEATHERS AND HIDES.

Long before Dolce & Gabbana dressed dapper Italian men, Ötzi was mixing materials to create his clothing. A study published this August finally revealed the variety of species used to make Ötzi’s outfit. He wore a loincloth of sheepskin, leggings and a coat of goat hide, and a brown bear-skin hat. Even his accessories were diverse: His shoelaces came from wild cows and his quiver from roe deer.

7. HE WAS AN EARLY ADOPTER OF TECHNOLOGY.

Ötzi’s field kit held a surprising number of different tools. There was a copper-bladed axe, which marks him as high status; a flint dagger and its tree-fiber sheath; and a bow made out of a yew tree. His quiver, fashioned out of deer hide with hazel wood supports, contained two finished arrows and a dozen unfinished shafts. He had a net for catching rabbits and birds, as well as a marble disc with a hole in the middle for hanging or carrying dead fowls. He also carried cylindrical containers made of birch bark—a kind of Copper Age Tupperware that kept charcoal embers hot for hours so he could quickly make a fire. His teeth were worn particularly on the left side, meaning he may have used his mouth to help work leather. The Iceman’s hair also revealed high levels of arsenic, suggesting he was a pro at smelting ores to make copper.

8. HE WAS A CHALCOLITHIC RAMBO.

Ötzi was short and stocky, around 5’2” tall and 135 lbs, with strong legs. In 2003, an early study of DNA from Ötzi and his belongings claimed to find blood from four different individuals—there was some on his dagger, on his goatskin coat, and on one of the arrows. This finding was never published, though, and has not been replicated since. But other evidence for combat exists in the form of two injuries. Several right-sided rib fractures had healed before death. Shortly before his death, Ötzi was struck in the head. A protein analysis of his brain reveals some healing, particularly in the form of blood clots—but those could have caused a stroke or embolism. The Iceman also suffered a long, deep stab wound to his right hand. Based on the stage of healing evident from the wound tissue, it occurred between 3 to 8 days before his death. And of course, the arrow lodged in his left shoulder was likely the ultimate cause of death. In short, Ötzi was a hunter and a fighter.

9. ÖTZI WAS NOT A VEGETARIAN.

The Iceman’s stomach contents revealed both his last meal and the meal before that. DNA analysis published in 2002 was based on samples of digested food collected from his colon. Ötzi’s second-to-last meal consisted of ibex meat along with various species of cereals and dicots (a group of flowering plants), while for his last meal, he dined on red deer meat and either grasses or cereals. The discovery of red deer in his gut is especially interesting, since depictions of that animal figure prominently in archaeological finds throughout the Alps in this time period.

10. THE ICEMAN HAD A GAP-TOOTHED SMILE AND OTHER BODILY ANOMALIES.

Between Ötzi’s top two teeth is a natural diastema, which is the anatomical term for a gap in the teeth. Among modern adults, about 10–20 percent have this gap. Researchers also saw in the Iceman’s mouth third molar agenesis—the anatomical term for lacking wisdom teeth. Around 35 percent of people today lack wisdom teeth. Ötzi was also missing some bones—the smallest of the ribs on either side. This lack of ribs is not unheard of, but it only affects about 5 percent of the population.

11. YOU COULD BE RELATED TO ÖTZI, BUT ONLY IF YOU'RE A GUY.

The Iceman’s genome was sequenced in 2012, revealing he had brown eyes and O-type blood, was lactose intolerant, and likely had Lyme disease. The mutations in Ötzi’s paternal genetic line are most commonly found in Sardinia and Corsica today, meaning those areas likely have descendants of his genetic family. Another study in 2013 tested thousands of modern men in the Alps and discovered that 19 modern men in the sample shared a genetic lineage with the Iceman. His maternal DNA line, however, appears to be extinct. So if you’re a guy and your ancestors go back to this roughly 620-mile band between Sardinia and the Alps, there's a chance you could be related to Ötzi.

12. ÖTZI IS CURSED.

We all know that every ancient mummy is cursed, so of course the Iceman has his own story. In 2005, rumors circulated that the deaths of at least five people may have been related to a mummy’s curse. One of the tourists who initially spotted the Iceman died falling off the side of a mountain. An Alpine guide who airlifted the mummy out died in an avalanche. A journalist who filmed the recovery of the mummy died of a brain tumor. A forensic expert who touched Ötzi with his bare hands died in a car accident en route to a conference to talk about the mummy. Even the death of the head of the research team at Innsbruck University has been attributed to Ötzi’s curse, in spite of the fact it was from multiple sclerosis. There is, of course, no evidence that these deaths are related to anything other than bad luck, coincidence, or the fact that, well, everybody dies eventually.

13. HE HAS 3D SELFIES.

One of the trends in 3D scanning and printing is to make a selfie or a replica bust of yourself, and Ötzi is no stranger this trend. The mummy has been thoroughly CT scanned over the years for analysis. Earlier this year, those CT scans were meshed with digital photographs, 3D printed, and then painted to create three life-size Ötzi clones. The Iceman’s first two 3D prints are on display at the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, along with 3D printed bones from his body. The third life-size print is being used in a traveling exhibit; its first stop, in fall 2017, will be the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. Eventually, this traveling Ötzi replica will find its way back to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology to be with the real migratory hunter-herder, whose own journey has lasted more than 50 centuries.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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