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© Südtiroler Archäologiemuseum/EURAC/Marco Samadelli-Gregor Staschitz

5000-year-old ‘Iceman’ may have benefited from a sophisticated health care system

Ötzi, the 5300-year-old “Iceman” discovered frozen in the Italian Alps in 1991, was a medical mess. His teeth were rotting, he had a bad stomach bug, and his knees were beginning to degenerate—not to mention the arrow in his back that probably killed him. Now, a new study concludes the herbs and tattoos he seems to have used to treat his ailments may have been common around this time, suggesting a sophisticated culture of health care at this point in human history.

Previous studies have found that Ötzi carried a number of suspected medicines either on him or in him. Fastened to leather bands in his equipment, researchers found the birch polypore fungus, which the Iceman may have used to calm inflammation or as an antibiotic. Scientists also found bracken fern in his stomach, which can be used to treat intestinal parasites such as tapeworm. And Ötzi was covered with 61 tattoos (such as the one on his back, pictured above) including dotlike points around joints, which some researchers believe may have been used as pain treatment akin to an early form of acupuncture.

In the new study, scientists took a closer look at Ötzi’s tattoos. Some lines and dots were directly over his wrist and ankles which suffered from degenerative diseases, and many correspond to traditional acupuncture points, they report in the International Journal of Paleopathology. The markings would have taken a long time to produce, and this sophisticated practice—along with the variety of herbs and medicines—would have likely been developed through a dedicated, systematic trial-and-error approach that was passed down through generations in the society in which Ötzi lived, the team concludes.

All of this—combined with the sophisticated use of plants and fungi to treat ailments—suggests Ötzi was part of a culture with some knowledge of anatomy, how diseases arise, and how to treat them, the scientists say. What they don’t know is whether any of these treatments actually worked.