Tollund Man, Otzi the Ice Man: what their last meals reveal

Over three thousand years ago, in the heights of the Tyrolean Alps, two shepherds trudged through the thickening snow. For two days, the couple had tried in vain to get rid of a band of marauders. When they climbed high into the pasture to take refuge in the sheer cliffs of cliffs, the thieves chased them deep into a deep ravine above a steep face. The shepherds continued to descend – the risk of falling was greater than the certain fate that awaited them if they stayed put.

Now the shepherds were hungry, tired and almost certain that their attackers did not know. They had run, full of adrenaline, down the moraine slopes to lower ground, just in time for an early season snowstorm to cut visibility to 50 paces. Sitting around a small fire, they recovered a supper of small spelled, fiddleheads, and smoked red deer and ibex meat in baskets of birch bark. It was the last meal they would eat.

These scenes are one of many scenarios that could have unfolded in the last days of the life of Europe’s oldest known mummy, Otzi the Ice Man. Since a pair of German tourists found his body When a glacier melted in 1991, researchers stubbornly searched for clues as to how Otzi died. But, an unequivocal narrative would require a time machine.

“Was he really the right guy? Was he the bad guy? Frank Maixner, a researcher at the Eurac Research Center for Studies of Mummies in Italy, asked rhetorically. “We’ll never really know.

Perhaps the best window we have on the life and death of ancient mummies is their stomachs. A glimpse of Otzi’s last meal can tell a multitude of scientists about the climate he lived in, the food he had, and how he prepared it.

Until recently, techniques for analyzing the preserved contents of the digestive systems of ancient humans relied mainly on careful study under a microscope. Now, researchers are able to identify it in much more detail by identifying indicators such as unique proteins, metabolites and genetic sequences. Two studies in particular have taken advantage of these evolving techniques, Maixner 2018 article on Otzi was the first. In July, a team of Danish scientists from the Silkeborg Museum applied the same tactics at the last meal of Tollund Man, a 2,300-year-old murder victim who was found enveloped in sphagnum moss in a Danish bog.

Like Otzi, the Tollund Man ate a mixture of grains before he died, most of which has been identified as barley and flax. Surprisingly, they were accompanied by “threshing waste”: seeds of wild herbs and a surprising amount of sand. Since these components could be easily removed during traditional grain processing, the researchers believe their presence was intentional.

The remains of Tollund Man shortly after its discovery in 1950. (Nationalmuseet / CC via SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons)

“Why did they include pale persicaria in the food?” Asked Nina Nielsen, head of research at Silkeborg. “Well, it was in the fields, so it wouldn’t take a lot of work to include it. But, was it a normal food source or was it kept for special occasions, like human sacrifices? “

Although the Nielsen team was able to identify the grains and weeds in the stomach of Tollund man with great specificity, the results were mostly consistent with studies from the 1950s that had previously inspected the contents. stomach under the microscope. The most surprising result of the new research came just before the document was printed in antiquity. A final analysis of the proteins on a brand new mass spectrometer revealed that Tollund’s man was omnivorous.

“It was really surprising. We found traces of fish. We haven’t seen this at all in previous research, ”Nielsen said.

Likewise, Maixner’s team solidified Otzi’s omnivore theory by analyzing traces of DNA, protein, and metabolites from his last meal. Their multi-pronged approach has allowed scientists to identify meat as wild game, red deer and ibex, with a high degree of certainty.

“We noticed, from other recordings, that they were having difficulty maintaining the cattle around this time,” Maixner said. “They lived like farmers, but had to go back to a more traditional hunter-gatherer way of life. “

Reading through Nielsen and Maixner’s research, it’s hard to imagine that there is much more to Otzi or Tollund Man’s last feasts to be known. The main components of each meal have been identified down to the species level. But, Maixner says there is more to discover.

“There are still microscopic plant remains that we couldn’t attribute,” he said. “A big problem is with comparative data sets. “

Because scientists have yet to sequence the genomes of many plant species, much of the genetic material analyzed by Maixner’s team was elusive. As genomic databases continue to grow, so will researchers’ knowledge of ancient remains.