The Iceman Acheth

5,300-year-old man suffered many ailments common today

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 25, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- When you think of the health hazards that stalked prehistoric man, what comes to mind?

Saber-toothed tigers? Sub-zero temperatures? Starvation?

Try heart disease and arthritis.

That's the surprising finding of a just-published study of "Oetzi" -- or the "Iceman" -- a spectacularly well-preserved 5,300-year-old corpse that was discovered in the Alps in 1991.

While it's difficult to make assumptions about groups of people based on one astonishing finding, researchers have been forced to do just that. And they've found that many of the health ills that plagued the Iceman are still vexing us.

The Iceman died under what would be considered unusual circumstances today -- he was shot by an arrow. This detail aside, his medical chart resembles that of many modern-day men and women. He had arthritis, degenerative disc disease, a smidgen of frostbite, and -- perhaps most surprising -- signs of heart disease.

"He appeared to have calcium in areas where blood vessels are expected to be," indicating hardening of the arteries, says Dr. William A. Murphy Jr., a forensic radiologist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Murphy is lead author of the study on the Iceman that appears in the March issue of Radiology. Learning that someone who lived so long ago was predisposed to a heart condition "opens all kinds of avenues of inquiry," he says.

There are rock-solid convictions about what causes heart disease today, Murphy says. People are taught to reduce fat in their diet, exercise and stop smoking to avoid hardening of the arteries. But 5,300 years ago, there were no cigarettes or fast food, and most people were hardly sedentary.

"Maybe the genetic aspect is more potent than we give it credit for," Murphy says.

The researchers determined the Iceman's ailments by using modern technology not available even a short time ago, such as CT scans, Murphy says. However, their time with the prehistoric patient was limited.

Scientists are determined to keep the Iceman as well-preserved as he was when found in the mountains between Austria and Italy, so they keep him frozen except for short times when he is retrieved for study.

The Iceman had other typical health problems.

For example, he had a small area of frostbite on one little toe.Although it is believed that many people at that time were forced to live in extremely cold temperatures, they apparently knew how to do so safely, Murphy says.

"These people really understood the cold and protected themselves," he says.

Researchers have managed to preserve the clothing in which the Iceman was found. He wore leather leggings and a strong, grass cape, Murphy says.

Unfortunately, many questions will remain unanswered, including exactly how the Iceman died.

He was found encased in ice, with an arrow in his back. Indications are he lost large amounts of blood, but he may actually have frozen to death, Murphy says.

The Iceman seems to have been an older man, at least over 40, Murphy notes, although pinpointing his exact age is extremely difficult.

"This is the oldest complete, naturally preserved man. Bar none," Murphy says.

The Iceman is 2,000 years older than Egypt's King Tut. And while a handful of other well preserved human specimens from millenniums past have been found, most were mummified, Murphy says. The Iceman was preserved by natural conditions.

Norman Sauer, a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University, says Murphy's study makes for fascinating reading.

"It's an exceptional study" and is "a spectacular illustration of the usefulness of modern technology," Sauer says. If the Iceman had been found just 20 years earlier, "the approaches [to studying him] would have been very different," he says.

The findings also challenge some modern-day thinking, Sauer says. "We often assume people in the past didn't have to worry about diseases we worry about today" but revelations about the Iceman suggest otherwise.

"It would be wonderful to be able to apply these methods to a population" of people beyond the Iceman, Sauer says. "We don't know how unique this guy was," he adds.

The Iceman is on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Balzano, Italy.

More information

To learn more about the Iceman, visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. For a story on what may have been the Iceman's last meal, check this PBS site.

SOURCES: William A. Murphy Jr., M.D., forensic radiologist, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston; Norman Sauer, Ph.D., forensic anthropologist, Michigan State University, East Lansing; March 2003 Radiology

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