Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1877:
ÖTZI'S DEATH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Ötzi's death. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ötzi slumps against the rock, exhausted, the cold starting to blunt his pain. He's ten thousand feet up, in what you and I call the Ötztaler Alps. He and his friend had been hunting in the mountains, when some very unfriendly folk showed up.

There was a nasty fight. Ötzi brought down two of them with his bow and arrows. He finished one off with his knife. They killed his friend; and Ötzi himself is badly cut up on his hands and torso. Worse yet, he caught an arrow in his shoulder. His friend pulled it out, but the point came loose. It's still in there.

ancient arrows

ancient axe Now he hunkers down, deciding what to do next. He still has his gear -- including his favorite axe with its copper head. He's far from his home in the valley below, and a storm is gathering. He'll have to wait it out. It's dangerous to stop moving, so he tries to stay focused -- thinks about his village -- the fertile fields, air heavy with smells of cow manure and wheat.

He dreams of the warm roar of the charcoal fire where he melted copper for the tools he makes. Breathe; think -- stay alive. But he relaxes. The pain ebbs. His mind drifts. He dies. Then the ice storm hits and he's soon frozen into solid ice.

Fifty-three hundred years later two hikers come by that very same spot. It's the warmest summer on record, and there's Ötzi, finally exposed by the melting ice. You and I suddenly have an amazing window into late Stone Age life in Southern Europe.

How do we know all we know about Ötzi? Well, I've taken far less liberty in my telling about him than you might think. Forensic studies tell us that one of his arrowheads carried blood from two other humans, and we find another person's blood on his knife and his cloak. We know that he'd recently eaten ibex, deer, and grain, and that his home was near present-day Bolzano, Italy. Since his hair carries traces of arsenic, a by-product of copper smelting, we're pretty sure he did his own metalwork.

Ötzi turns our notions about chronology upon their ear. He lived eight hundred years before the Great Pyramid. We used to think that metal hadn't found its way into Europe until much later. And Ötzi was not just hammering out lumps of alluvial copper. He was melting the stuff down and casting it into useful forms.

His equipment reflects a remarkable knowledge of materials. He used eighteen or so varieties of wood and shrubbery to make just the clothing and tools that he carried on his person. Ötzi and his people were very skilled technologists.

Of course a wise person once said that any good scientific answer generates two new scientific questions. So we struggle to see more from the window Ötzi has opened upon the fourth millennium BC.

What were the mysterious tattoos covering his body? What was the division of labor in his village, and how did he fit into it? Would I have enjoyed his company? And, as an engineer, how much would I have learned talking with him -- and watching him at work?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


At this writing (January 26, 2004), the story of Ötzi is unfolding on the Internet. See, e.g.:
http://www.mummytombs.com/main.otzi.htm
Script of the Nova program on Ötzi


Otzi hunting
All images are from H. R. Hall, The Threshold of History, ca. 1900 (undated). The illustrators, Nancy Smith and Hilda Booth, have caught Ötzi's world of 5300 years ago surprisingly well, although the book was about Europe's later Bronze Age.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.