Otzi the iceman
Ötzi was found in the Alps and is one of the best preserved glacier mummies in the world Courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Ötzi the Iceman didn't die after being shot with an arrow – it's more likely that he froze to death, scientists have now said.

Ötzi, also known as the Tyrolean Iceman, is one of the most famous mummies in the world. It was first discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. It has not ceased to fascinate scientists ever since. Thanks to its excellent state of preservation, they have been able to find out a lot about his ancestry, his health and his lifestyle.

But perhaps the deepest mystery that they have tried to solve is how 5,300 years-old Ötzi died. In 2001, researchers established that he had been brutally murdered. They said he was killed by an arrow which pierced through his left shoulder.

A more recent study re-opened this ''cold case'' to investigate the context of his death – showing that the arrow had taken him by surprise when he was resting. It is also possible that he had eaten a meal of dried wild goat meat before dying.

But new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists suggests that the cause of death might not have been the injury sustained when the arrow hit him. The study, "Radiological and Forensic Re-evaluation of the Cause of Death of the Iceman, c. 5300 BP" points out that the Iceman may have succumbed to the cold.

Not a lethal blow

Anthropologist Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich conducted new X-rays and CT scans. His results contradict the theory that Ötzi died from the arrow. Indeed, penetration of the weapon in his shoulder was shallow. It would have ruptured a blood vessel but it would not have caused lethal internal bleeding and tissue damage.

otzi iceman
Otzi the Iceman (reconstruction) AFP

Although the Tyrolean Iceman would have been in pain, the injury would not by itself have been sufficient to cause death. Similarly, the fractures that some scientists have identified on his skull would not have been fatal. They are probably the result of a fall.

Instead, the researcher and his team propose that, much weakened after suffering minor blood loss due to the arrow, Ötzi the Iceman froze to death in the mountains.