Perhaps the most famous tattooed ancient man is Ötzi the Iceman, who died high in the Italian Alps more than 5,000 years ago. Ötzi’s clothing, tools, and weapons are a remarkable window into the life of a herder or perhaps a chieftain in Copper Age Europe. But it is Ötzi’s body itself, almost perfectly preserved by the snow and ice that covered him shortly after his death, that provides unique evidence of early medicine. Ötzi is covered with more than 50 tattoos in the form of lines and crosses made up of small incisions in his skin into which charcoal was rubbed. Because they are all found on parts of the body that show evidence of a lifetime of wear and tear—the ankles, wrists, knees, Achilles tendon, and lower back, for example—it’s thought that Ötzi’s tattoos were therapeutic, not decorative or symbolic. When Ötzi was first studied, archaeologists were shocked because they had never before seen Copper Age tattoos, and because acupuncture as a treatment for joint distress, rheumatism, and arthritis was thought to have originated in Asia more than 2,000 years later.
BOLZANO, ITALY—Paleopathologist Albert Zink and microbiologist Frank Maixner of the European Academy in Bozen/Bolzano have identified the presence of Helicobacter pylori in the stomach contents of Ötzi, the frozen human remains discovered in the Alps in 1991. As many as half of people today are infected with Helicobacter pylori, which can cause gastritis or stomach ulcers. Ötzi’s stomach mucosa is no longer present, so scientists did not expect to be able to recover any traces of the bacterium. “We were able to solve the problem once we hit upon the idea of extracting the entire DNA of the stomach contents. After this was successfully done, we were able to tease out the individual Helicobacter sequences and reconstruct a 5,300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome,” Maixner explained in a press release. And Ötzi’s immune system had reacted to the potentially virulent strain of bacteria. “We showed the presence of marker proteins which we see today in patients infected with Helicobacter,” Maixner added. The genetic makeup of the bacteria has raised more questions, however, and further research is being planned. The study of bacteria living inside the human body may eventually be able to help us understand how humans developed.