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New DNA Study Reveals Glacier Mummy's Medical Problems

A researcher inspects the 5,300-year-old mummy known as Oetzi, at the Archeological Museum of the Alto Adige in Bolzano, northern Italy, September 2000. (file photo)
A researcher inspects the 5,300-year-old mummy known as Oetzi, at the Archeological Museum of the Alto Adige in Bolzano, northern Italy, September 2000. (file photo)

European scientists say a recently completed DNA map of the Iceman - the well-preserved, 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in a melting Alpine glacier in 1991 - is yielding new details about the man's physical look, his ethnic origins and his health - including an apparent predisposition for heart disease.

The details are described in a new paper by scientists at the European Academy for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy, and at the Institute for Human Genetics in Germany. Among the key findings is that the Iceman, whom scientists have nicknamed Oetzi, was genetically at risk for heart disease, even though he was neither sedentary nor overweight. Researchers say that fact is significant because it shows that the cardiovascular condition existed more than 5,000 years ago, and therefore cannot be associated primarily with modern lifestyles.

In addition to his heart problems, Oetzi’s newly mapped genome reveals that he also suffered from the chronic tick-borne illness, Lyme disease, or borreliosis. The researchers say this is the earliest-known case of the bacterial infection, and provides proof that Lyme disease was present in the New Stone Age period.   

Oetzi also was lactose intolerant, meaning he could not digest milk products. The scientists say this finding supports the theory that lactose intolerance - which persists today in most Asians and Africans but affects few northern Europeans - was still a common condition in Oetzi's time, even though his people were becoming increasingly involved in farming and the domestication of dairy animals.

The researchers believe Oetzi’s ancestors likely hailed from the Middle East, and migrated to Europe as agriculture and cattle breeding continued to spread. They say the dwindling populations of modern-day Europeans who share the Iceman’s genetic heritage are found mostly in geographically isolated areas, such as the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica.

Oetzi's new DNA map also has helped researchers reconstruct the physical appearance of the ill-fated traveler. They say he had brown eyes and long, wavy brown hair, which scientists believe would have been worn loose. He stood approximately 1.6 meters tall --an average height for a man during the New Stone Age - and he weighed an estimated 50 kilograms.

The analysis of the Iceman’s complete genome is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Earlier studies concluded that Oetzi died at the venerable age of 45. However, later examinations of wounds on the mummy suggested the Iceman was murdered, fatally shot in the back with an arrow and left to die on an Alpine glacier.

Many scientists believe that the high quality of the Iceman’s clothing and items he was carrying when he was killed, such as a fine copper axe, make it likely that Oetzi and his family had considerable social standing within their community.

Oetzi the Iceman's frozen corpse was naturally mummified in the spot where he fell dead, more than 600 years before the first bricks were laid in Giza for Egypt's Great Pyramid. Entombed under a deepening layer of snow and ice, the mummy remained undisturbed until 1991, when two German hikers happened on the partially exposed corpse while trekking through the Oetztal Alps, near the Italian border.

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by: Ahmed Shihab
March 02, 2012 7:22 AM
science progress so rapid and we can't predict what discover tomorrow

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