Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Oetzi Caper

There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of e life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. ~ Sherlock Holmes, A Study In Scarlet

It must have been a slow news day in the science biz a couple of weeks ago for the BBC to put yet another story proclaiming that the real cause of the Iceman's death had been determined.

What, again?

For those of you who are oblivious to science news, in 1991, a mummified body was found in the Alps. Initially, it was thought to be a recent death, so the authorities were called in. As they investigate, they began to find artifacts, like a copper ax, a grass cloak, and a knife, that were obviously very old. Anthropologists took over, and it was ultimately determined that Oetzi (variously spelled Otzi or Utzi), as he was called because of the location where he had been found, was over 5,000 years old. After a ten-year custody battle, he now resides in the South Tyrol in Italy, where pathologists just can't get enough of poking and prodding him.

So what is the final (for the moment) cause of death? He got shot with an arrow and bled to death.

This is news?

"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." You'll find that pithy quote here, penned almost a year ago by yours truly. I based that on the results stated in a Discovery Channel program. The only significant difference between my statement is that the current pathological genius maintains he couldn't have gone very far thanks to the amount of bleeding he was undergoing.

But, even he waffles.
"this is speculation, because someone might have helped him up there. I'd rather stick to the facts", says the good doctor. So Oetzi might have been shot at a lower altitude and assisted by person or persons unknown for some distance before expiring on the glacier. In other words, we don't know anything we didn't know before. And we don't know anything new. Period.

The fascination for things Oetzi is amazing. Scientists have picked up many tantalizing hints about human civilization in this pre-Bronze era, and all sorts of intriguing scenarios about Oetzi, his lifestyle, and prehistoric human beings have been imagined.
But Oetzi is a sample of one. Drawing sweeping conclusions about how we lived 5,000 years ago from one mummy is a bit dangerous, just as presenting little dramas about his demise are pure speculation. For ages, people believed that Oetzi was a shepherd or a trader who died when he got caught in a sudden storm on the glacier. Then the arrowhead was found and CSI:Oetzi commenced. Now we've reached the point where a pathologist is offering the opinion that he died just like everyone has already decided that he did, only sooner, unless he got help, for which we have no proof.

It's time to put the murder case to rest and go back to learning more about Oetzi's time and surroundings from his belongings. That's where the real interest lies. We know humans have been violent as long as they could pick up a stick to hit another human with. Rather than focusing on Oetzi's dying, it's time to focus on his living.

We've got a lot to learn.

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