In 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps stumbled upon a dead body. But this was no typical John Doe case: The man had been dead for about 5300 years, frozen and perfectly preserved by a mountain glacier that had started to melt. Known as Ötzi, or the Iceman, he has become one of the most famous and well-studied natural mummies in the world. Now, researchers have provided a detailed chemical analysis of his last meal and found it was rich in fat.
As described in previous accounts, Ötzi had a completely full stomach when he was shot with an arrow and died. In the new study scientists quantified the ancient DNA, proteins, and other chemicals preserved in his stomach contents. Fat residues, which DNA indicates came from red deer and ibex, made up about 50% of the total undigested food in his stomach, the team writes today in Current Biology.
Although one meal doesn’t reveal a lifetime’s diet, a high-fat diet may have given Ötzi the energy he needed to survive at high altitudes. The Iceman’s last meal was balanced with grains from einkorn wheat and traces of a genus of toxic ferns called bracken. Researchers say he may have consumed the bracken as medicine to treat parasites previously identified in his intestines—or he may have simply used the fern to wrap his other food and ingested its toxic spores unintentionally.