The Iceman Could Have Used a Dentist

Three-dimensional scans of the Iceman's teeth show a number of painful conditions related to a Neolithic diet. ->

Ötzi the Iceman suffered from a large number of oral pathologies, according to a new dental examination of the 5,300-year-old mummy.

Carried out at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, the research confirmed a preliminary study presented two years ago at the seventh world congress on mummy studies in San Diego, Calif.: The Iceman had very bad teeth.

"He had everything: dental trauma, paradontal disease, abrasion and caries," study co-author Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.

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Since his discovery in 1991 in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps - hence the name - the mummy has been extensively investigated.

Scientists discovered that Ötzi had brown eyes, was lactose intolerant, had a genetic predisposition for an increased risk for coronary heart disease, and probably had Lyme disease.

It's certain he died a violent death: In 2007, CT scans showed that an arrowhead had lacerated the left subclavian artery, leading to fast, deadly bleeding.

Although the mummy is one of the most heavily investigated human corpses of all time, researchers had so far paid little attention to possible dental issues.

"His teeth have been neglected for the last 20 years," Rühli said.

Only the remarkable diastema, or natural gap, between his two upper incisors, and the radiologically easily visible lack of all four-third molars had been reported.

To find out more, Rühli and dentist colleague Roger Seiler re-evaluated the mummy's latest CT scans from 2005. They detailed their research in the current issue of the European Journal of Oral Sciences.

The three-dimensional computer tomography reconstructions provided the researchers with crucial glimpses on the evolution of dental pathologies. They showed that all 28 teeth had a severe degree of abrasion, while two teeth suffered from large decayed lesions.

Thee molars of the upper jaw featured loss of alveolar bone as a sign of advanced periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and bones that support the teeth), which would have caused painful and recurrent abscesses.

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Rühli and Seiler also found evidence of "mechanical trauma" or physical hit, on one upper front tooth.

As a result, the tooth probably remained loose.

"This trauma was at least several weeks old and was certainly not related to the Iceman's violent cause of death," the researchers wrote.

Although the Iceman did not lose a tooth until the his death at age 40, Rühli believes that within 10 years he would have most certainly have lost some of his teeth.

According to the researchers, the Iceman's dental issues were based on environmental and possibly on genetic basis.

Certainly, the diet played a key role. Eating more and more starchy foods such as bread and cereal porridge - consumed commonly in the Neolithic period because of the rise of agriculture - would have contributed to the tooth decay.

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Moreover, the food was very abrasive because of contaminants and the rub-off from the quern. The researchers even found that one molar has lost a cusp, probably from chewing on something, perhaps a small stone in the cereal porridge.

Although he would have needed a dentist badly, the Iceman's teeth were somehow working.

"He probably had a functional, yet sometimes painful, dentition," the researchers concluded.

Image: Samadelli Marco/EURAC/dpa/Corbis

Exactly 20 years ago, on Sept. 19, 1991, German hikers Erika and Helmut Simon spotted something brown while walking near a melting glacier in the Oetztal Alps in South Tyrol. As they got closer, they realized with horror it wasn't a piece of rubbish, but a human corpse lying on its chest against a flat rock.

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Only the back of the head, the bare shoulders and part of the back emerged from the ice and meltwater.

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In the following days, various attempts at recovering the corpse were made. Finally, on Sept. 23, the body was extracted from the ice along with numerous pieces of leather and hide, string, straps and clumps of hay. The mummified body was taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck.

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The mummy lay in a 131-foot-long, 9-foot -deep and 22- foot -wide rocky gully surrounded by steep stone walls at an altitude of 10.531 feet. Since the glacier made it difficult to establish the exact location of the watershed, a controversy arose on which soil -- Italian or Austrian -- it was found. A survey of the border carried out on Oct. 2, 1991 established that the mummy lay 303.67 feet from the border in South Tyrol, in Italy.

The discovery caused a global media sensation. Initially, the mummy was dated to be at least 4,000 years old (later, radio carbon dating established that the man lived around 5,000 years ago, between 3350 and 3100 B.C.). Such an old, well preserved, fully clothed, mummified body had never before been seen.

Between July 20 and Aug. 25, 1992, a second archaeological survey was carried out at the glacier. Numerous pieces of the Iceman's equipment emerged, such as a bearskin cap, leather and hide remnants, grasses, string, pieces of skin, muscle fibers, hair and a fingernail.

Although the most important piece in the Iceman's equipment is a copper-bladed axe (tests have shown it could have chopped down a yew tree in 35 minutes) this stone disc is the most mysterious. Made of white Dolomite marble, it has a hole in the middle through which a hide strip was threaded. Nine twisted hide thongs were tied on to a loop in this strip. After 20 years, the disc's function remains unclear.

Oetzi is the world's most studied mummy. The Neolithic man is a so-called "wet mummy." As humidity is retained in individual cells, the body tissue is elastic and allows in-depth scientific investigations. With all his recovered clothing and equipment, this natural mummy, unaltered by burial rites, provides a unique view into Stone Age life in Europe.

Researchers were able to diagnose several anatomic anomalies and pathologies in the mummy: Oetzi lacked a 12th pair of ribs, had bad teeth, worn joints and hardened arteries, and suffered from whipworm infestation. He also had a remarkable diastema -- a natural gap between his two upper incisors.

Oetzi's body is covered with over 50 tattoos produced by fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed. The cuts were probably part of a pain-relieving treatment. Indeed, the tattooed areas correspond to skin acupuncture lines. Before Oetzi, it was believed that acupuncture originated 2,000 years later in Asia.

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In 2001 new X-ray analysis revealed the presence of a flint arrowhead in the left shoulder. The arrowhead ended up just a few inches from the lung. Although vital organs were not hit, the arrow severed a major blood vessel and damaged the neurovascular fascicles of the left arm. This caused heavy bleeding and possibly paralysis of the arm. The Iceman probably bled to death within a matter of minutes. A deep wound to the hand and numerous bruises confirm that the Iceman engaged in hand-to-hand combat shortly before his death. Recently, researchers also discovered a skull fracture and major bleeding in the back, suggesting that the mummy also suffered a blow to the head. He died in the spring or early summer at about age 45.

This reconstruction by two Dutch experts, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, was produced with the latest in forensic mapping technology. It used three-dimensional images of the mummy's skull as well as infrared and tomographic images. It shows Oetzi as a brown-eyed, bearded, furrow faced man who spent many hours walking in the mountains. He was about 5 foot, 3 inches tall and weighed 110 pounds. The Iceman belonged to a European genetic group and was probably infertile.

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On Jan. 16, 1998, the Iceman and his belongings were moved from the Institute for Anatomy of Innsbruck University to a newly-built South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. The mummy now lies in a darkened room and can be viewed through a small window. At a temperature of -42F° and a relative humidity of 98 percent, Oetzi's house simulates the conditions of the glacier ice. To stop the mummy from gradually drying out, the cell walls are lined with tiles of ice.

Claims of a Tutankhamen-style curse have begun to spread about Oetzi. Indeed, seven strange deaths occurred just a couple of years after German hiker Helmut Simon and his wife Erika discovered the frozen mummy in the Oetztal Alps in 1991. The seven people who died were all involved either in the recovery of the mummy or in the scientific investigation. One of the seven was Helmut Simon, whose body was found trapped in ice in 2004, just like his famous find.