Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Iceman Cometh ...And Cometh And Cometh And Cometh

Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew. ~William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I am in the wrong business. Instead of being a crack system administrator (or cracked system administrator, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference), I should have been an agent. More importantly, I should have been the agent for an Alpine corpse, because he's become science television gold. Oetzi (or Utzi or Otzi, depending on which program you see) the seems to be a very hot commodity for being a frozen mummy.

For those of you who have never watched any of the Discovery-History consortium of channels, Oetzi was found by hikers in the Alps in 1991 (in an area from where Oetzi got his name). At first, it was thought that the body was of recent vintage because of its remarkable state of preservation, but it was quickly determined that there was something very special, particularly when artifacts were found near by: clothing, a bronze ax, arrows, a quiver, a bow, a pouch containing medicinal herbs, among other things. Oetzi was about to give scientists a glimpse into the early bronze age, an age that evidently started earlier than originally thought.

Unfortunately, Oetzi entry into the twentieth century landed him, metaphorically speaking, in court as Austria and Italy began arguing about Oetzi's current citizenship. Perhaps because of that dispute, it took ten years for someone to discover that Oetzi had not simply gotten overtaken by a storm and perished peacefully. He had, in fact, been shot with an arrow. The Ice Man caper had become a homicide.

I've written before about the speculations that went on once CSI:Oetzi got rolling. They brought in a crew of experts, including the pathologist who discovered the wound that scientists had overlooked, and cooked up all sorts of intriguing scenarios, including tribal wars, dramatized with appropriate pathos and overacting, not to mention people wearing strange headgear and grunting a lot. I also wrote about reports about Oetzi's sexual inadequacies, but fortunately those have not made it to television ... yet.

That should make for some interesting dramatizations.

However, the other night, the pathologist was back at it again. Two years after finding the arrow wound, he was poking poor old Oetzi yet again (who's paying for all this?), and lo and behold, he found Oetzi had a veritable bonanza of wounds all over his body. So, they get back into investigation mode, this being promising us that they're going to identify the killer.

Say what? I know that Interpol files are pretty impressive, but I didn't know they had dossiers on Bronze Age hitmen.

Of course, they can't tell us anything about who killed him or why. What they could determine was that he was in one or more fights prior to his death. How long before is a matter about which they were rather vague. At some point, probably making his way through the mountain pass, he was shot by an assailant, although in the earlier episode, it was stated he could have been shot much earlier, because the wound was not immediately fatal. An artery had been hit, which meant Oetzi bled to death, but he could have taken some time to do so.

It's not that the program wasn't interesting. For example, a good portion was spent in examining the effectiveness of the bow used by Oetzi's contemporaries, which was very effective indeed. Also, it was shown that there appeared to be different types of arrowheads in use, some for game hunting and some for hunting people. Oetzi was taken down by the latter.

In all of these programs, it has never been explained why Oetzi himself was carrying unfinished arrows in his quiver. Perhaps the explanation is that one tipped arrows when it was determined how they were going to be used. In any event, Oetzi evidently was unprepared for what befell him, which is hard to figure out if he was on the run from a village fight, as portrayed in the episode.

The pathologist had decided that Oetzi's bleeding to death helped mummify him on the basis that he bled so completely that all the bacteria that would have caused putrefaction drained from his body. I am no expert on pathology, but this is patent nonsense. First, there have been many cases of natural mummification where all the blood was not drained from the body. The early desert mummies of Egypt, the Caucasian mummies in China, Peruvian mummies, and others had all of their blood when they died. Secondly, even when someone bleeds to death, a significant amount of blood remains in the body, pooled by gravity. Even an arterial wound stops pumping out blood when the heart stops. Finally, the bacteria that cause decay are inside the organs, particularly the stomach. Bleeding to death does not remove these.

Oetzi's mummification occurred because cold air is dry, just as desert air is. The moisture is robbed from the body, which does more to stop bacterial decay than anything else. Also in the cold air, bacterial action is slowed. All in all, dying in a perpetually frozen environment is an excellent way to be preserved for a very long time.

So, after all of this, we've discovered two things. One, pathologists, or at least this one, doesn't understand mummification. Second, people in the Bronze Age killed each other, just as people do today. That the pathologist's view on preservation of the corpses was presented without correction reflects a lack of research on the part of the program's producers. Perhaps a little less emphasis on the sensational and more on scholarship would be in order.

But, implying that the idea that ancient violence is a novelty is almost as bad. It was said that as people became settled and could store food that jealousies developed between neighboring groups which led to violent outcomes. No doubt it did. But, prior to that, trespassing on hunting grounds also probably led to conflict. Violence is a part of our nature. It haunts us today, despite all of our advances and technologies. We still go to war, we still kill our neighbors over trivialities. If we don't want to end up like Oetzi and so many other of our ancestors, we need to overcome that part of our nature.

That's the lesson Oetzi is trying to teach us.

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