The Iceman, Modern Medicine and Ancient Acupuncture

Have you ever heard of Ötzi the Iceman? If not, this is the perfect story to explore as glacial winter weather settles upon us here in Portland, Maine.

Preserved in the Ice

Ötzi’s well-preserved, naturally mummified remains were found accidentally by hikers in 1991 on the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley glacier in South Tyrol, Italy, where researchers believe he was shot in the back by an arrow more than five thousand years ago! This means that the Copper Age mummy, whose tools and clothing were preserved alongside him in the ice, predates ancient sites such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.

 

Otzi’s remains (Wikimedia Commons)

Medical Mysteries

The Iceman’s body was so well-preserved in the mountains that researchers have painted an incredibly clear picture of Otzi’s life and death – they were even able to discern that his final meal was one of fresh or dried ibex twelve hours before he was killed! Along with ibex, the bacteria H. pylori was found in his intestines. While modern research has linked this bacteria, which is present in 50% of humans, to ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues, scientists studying the Iceman believe H. pylori may have aided in the digestion of raw meat. Another interesting digestive discovery was that the Iceman was lactose intolerant. 1

Connection to Acupuncture

The origins of the ancient healing art of acupuncture have generally been traced to China during the Warring State period, about 770-221 B.C.E.2 Stone tools and ancient texts that reference a system of meridians from that era had previously supported this claim – until Ötzi, that is. One of the most interesting discoveries associated with the Iceman is a series mysterious tattoos, sixty-one in total, located near points that correspond with modern acupuncture points. Researchers consider these tattoos to be medicinal, in particular to help alleviate pain associated with degeneration in Ötzi’s lumbar spine (if you have ever seen an acupuncturist for low back pain, you most likely have been needled near your ankle – similar to some of Ötzi’s tattoos!) If researchers’ suspicions are correct, a system of acupuncture may have been known to inhabitants of the Alps thousands of years before acupuncture can be traced to China.

More Questions than Answers

Studying Ötzi has opened a doorway into the mysterious ancient world in which he lived, providing scientists with as many questions as answers. What do you think about the Iceman?

1Sturdee, Simon. Stone Age mummy still revealing secrets, 25 years on. September 2016.

https://phys.org/news/2016-09-stone-age-mummy-revealing-secrets.html

2Run Ming, Yan. The Origin and Development of Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3331519/pdf/ASL-4-224.pdf