Ötzi and his kin

Posted on August 28, 2010


Science News and Discovery both have publicized a new theory about Ötzi, the famous “iceman” found in the Alps, published in Antiquity. Instead of dying alone after fleeing the person who shot an arrow in his shoulder, researchers now suggest that the body was found downhill from its original burial site, on a formal stone platform. This would imply that he was carried up to the highlands for final burial.

This is an extraordinary example of the way that initial assumptions and data– even some of the most extraordinary data possible– work together in a circuit of interpretation. As Science News puts it,

many scientists have assumed that someone shot and killed Ötzi with an arrow as he attempted to flee through a mountain pass after a disastrous fight. From this perspective, the Iceman preserves a brutal prehistoric moment in time.

The flight scenario comes as much out of assumptions about the nature of life in this time and place as it does from the evidence. It should be obvious that this narrative falls easily into gendered visions of the distant past. If the shift in model takes hold (the original researchers remain unconvinced), then we have to think about other ways of understanding the social relations surrounding Ötzi.

And that might make this an interesting time to consider another gendered aspect of the interpretation of data obtained by studying these unusually well preserved human remains. As Wikipedia puts it, Ötzi

had genetic markers associated with reduced fertility. It has been speculated that this may have affected his social acceptance, or at least that his infertility could have had social implications within his tribal group, which could have played a role in the chain of events that led to the confrontation [assumed to have ended his life].

The evidence for genetic markers of lower fertility was reported in 2006. BBC News reported that researchers had identified segments of mitochondrial DNA associated with “reduced sperm mobility”. The effect would, possibly, be that Ötzi had fewer or no children than other men in his group.

Researcher Franco Rollo is quoted as saying

“One would have to investigate whether there was an awareness of male infertility in this ancient society; and if so, whether the lack of a family or clan could represent a kind of social weakness.”

What is interesting here is the leap from not having children, to not having family. Lurking in many archaeological models of the past is a very modern view of family life: a man, a woman, and their offspring.

But we have no real reason to make that assumption. Now, with the spur of a proposal that Ötzi was carefully disposed of by members of his own community, maybe we can start thinking about the presence in past populations of adults without children of their own, who nonetheless had families (siblings, parents, cousins, and more) and who may well have had unique lives because they were not involved solely in raising their own offspring.