Science

The original Paleo Diet: Ancient Iceman's stomach contents reveal last meal

It may look like an alien autopsy, but here researchers examine the stomach contents of the 5,300-year old Iceman, Ötzi
It may look like an alien autopsy, but here researchers examine the stomach contents of the 5,300-year old Iceman, Ötzi
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it took almost 20 years for Ötzi's stomach contents to be analyzed because for a long time, no one could find his stomach after it moved during the mummification process
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it took almost 20 years for Ötzi's stomach contents to be analyzed because for a long time, no one could find his stomach after it moved during the mummification process
A wheat grain spikelet, found in Ötzi's stomach
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A wheat grain spikelet, found in Ötzi's stomach
Unidentified plant residue, found in Ötzi's stomach
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Unidentified plant residue, found in Ötzi's stomach
Plant tissue found in Ötzi's stomach
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Plant tissue found in Ötzi's stomach
The left and middle vials contain samples taken from Ötzi's small and large intestines, while the right vial is from his stomach. In the last, larger pieces of fatty food are visible
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The left and middle vials contain samples taken from Ötzi's small and large intestines, while the right vial is from his stomach. In the last, larger pieces of fatty food are visible
Adipose fat tissue found in Ötzi's stomach
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Adipose fat tissue found in Ötzi's stomach
Animal muscle fibers found in Ötzi's stomach
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Animal muscle fibers found in Ötzi's stomach
It may look like an alien autopsy, but here researchers examine the stomach contents of the 5,300-year old Iceman, Ötzi
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It may look like an alien autopsy, but here researchers examine the stomach contents of the 5,300-year old Iceman, Ötzi

In 1991, a pair of German tourists stumbled onto the remarkably well-preserved corpse of a man, frozen in the ice of the Eastern Italian Alps. The body turned out to be 5,300 years old, and Ötzi – as he's since come to be known – has taught us a lot about the Copper Age world he came from, including men's fashion of the time. The newest lesson comes from an analysis of his stomach contents, indicating an unexpectedly high-fat diet of meat interspersed with cereals and strangely, toxic bracken.

If you're wondering how it took more than 25 years for scientists to think to investigate Ötzi's stomach contents, that's apparently because nobody could really figure out where his stomach was, since it would have moved during the mummification process. It wasn't until CT scans were more closely examined in 2009 that the organ was finally spotted.

Now researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies have peered inside to see what Ötzi's last meal was made up of. The team carefully removed the material and analyzed it, to figure out what a typical Chalcolithic Diet might have included.

it took almost 20 years for Ötzi's stomach contents to be analyzed because for a long time, no one could find his stomach after it moved during the mummification process
it took almost 20 years for Ötzi's stomach contents to be analyzed because for a long time, no one could find his stomach after it moved during the mummification process

According to the study, just prior to his death Ötzi had chowed down on muscle fibers and fat tissue from various animals, with a side of einkorn wheat and other plant matter. The meat was apparently eaten fresh or might have been dried out.

"By using a complementary multi-omics approach combined with microscopy, we reconstructed the Iceman's last meal, showing that he has had a remarkably high proportion of fat in his diet, supplemented with wild meat from ibex and red deer, cereals from einkorn, and with traces of toxic bracken," says Frank Maixner, an author of the study. "The stomach material was, compared to previously analyzed lower intestine samples, extraordinarily well preserved, and it also contained large amounts of unique biomolecules such as lipids, which opened new methodological opportunities to address our questions about Ötzi's diet."

The left and middle vials contain samples taken from Ötzi's small and large intestines, while the right vial is from his stomach. In the last, larger pieces of fatty food are visible
The left and middle vials contain samples taken from Ötzi's small and large intestines, while the right vial is from his stomach. In the last, larger pieces of fatty food are visible

Interestingly adipose fat, most likely from the ibex, made up about half of the stomach contents. The team says this amount was unexpected, but it makes sense given he was living in such a hostile climate.

"The high and cold environment is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss," says Albert Zink, an author of the study. "The Iceman seemed to have been fully aware that fat represents an excellent energy source."

The bracken is more of a mystery though, given it's toxic. The team suggests that Ötzi may have been self-medicating some kind of health problem, which could be related to the parasites that have previously been found in his intestines. There's also a chance he didn't eat it but merely wrapped his food in the leaves without realizing it was toxic.

The researchers say their study also revealed traces of the Iceman's gut bacteria, and reconstructing his long-lost microbiome is the next phase of the study. There's no doubt we haven't heard the last from Ötzi.

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

Source: EURAC

3 comments
NeilosBarross
In 5,000 years from now future humans will uncover one of our contemporary humans beings & they'll be horrified to discover a 100% processed sugar diet existed among ancient humans from their past
Tom Swift
So they are interpolating one meal, eaten by one person, on one occasion, into what the typical diet was like? Boy hope I don't die after a Friday night potato chip binge.....
DonKirkwood
Actually bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum is pretty safe to eat if prepared properly, and still regularly eaten by modern foragers without ill effect. Here's a pretty good overview of the issues. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/06/the-bracken-fern-a-natural-born-killer/241271/ I'm surprised the original paper (I did read it) didn't do the easy research that would have shown that bracken is still a widely eaten wild food.