Neither light-skinned, nor long-haired, nor did he come from the East. A new genetic analysis of Ötzi, the man mummified in the ice of the Alps, redraws the image that was held of the most famous European Neolithic. Found in 1991 by a couple of German mountaineers on a glacier, his mummy has been studied in detail, getting to know how he was killed or the last thing he ate. A decade ago, the complete genome of the so-called ice man was sequenced for the first time. Fed by that data and some imagination, his appearance was more like what the prehistoric movies have drawn than what he should have been in reality. Now, a new genetic study concludes that he was probably bald, had very dark skin, and his ancestors were farmers who came from Anatolia, present-day Turkey.
In 2012 the results of the first analysis of Ötzi’s nuclear DNA were published. They then applied available sequencing techniques to the left iliac (hip) bone. They were able to determine that he had brown eyes, his blood group was 0 and he was lactose intolerant, like the vast majority of Europeans at the time. They also related him to his contemporaries, inhabitants of the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea, locals of what are now Corsica and Sardinia. And as for his ancestry, he dominated the lineage of genes brought by men from the eastern steppes. The investigation did not say anything about the color of the skin or the hair, but since then the image of this prehistoric man was that of a light-skinned and long-haired adventurer or hunter.
The new work, published in the scientific journal Cell Genomics, uses the same bone to resequence Ötzi’s genome. But the technology is not the same as it was a decade ago. The researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany) Johannes Krause, senior author of the study, says that we now have “a better understanding of what it looks like with the latest results.” He sums it up by saying that “the iceman was probably bald, had darker skin than most Europeans, and had no Eastern European steppe herdsman ancestry.” The genetic variation of it causes men who carry it to go bald long before they reach old age.
“8,000 years ago all western and central Europeans had dark skin”
Johannes Krause, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany)
When it was recovered from the ice, the mummy already had that characteristic dark color, but it has always been thought that it was the mummification process itself that darkened Ötzi’s skin. “Much of the reconstruction could be more a figment of the artists’ imagination of a Central European past than the actual mummy,” Krause says. And he adds: “We have discovered over the last decade that light skin only became massively widespread in the last 5,000 years, probably as an adaptation to agriculture. 8,000 years ago all western and central Europeans had dark skin. That is to say, that the man resembled the mummy more than what had been accepted until now.
Discovery of the mummified body of a man in the Similaun glacier in the Otzal Alps in Italy, 92 meters from the border with Austria.Leopold Nekula (Leopold Nekula)
Being a farmer, or belonging to a community that cultivated the land, is also counted by genes. Ötzi had a number of metabolism-related variations to him that set him apart from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. “There are gene variants that are polymorphic in humans, where one variant provides better adaptation to a diet rich in animal fats (in the Inuit, for example) and others are better at digesting vegetable fat. The iceman had the latter. He was better adapted to a plant-based diet, which generally accompanies an agricultural lifestyle,” Krause details.
That vegetable diet and his agricultural lifestyle identify Ötzi as a European Neolithic. When he was killed by a crush between 5,373 and 5,143 years ago, farming communities descended from the first farmers from Anatolia and the Near East were already cornering groups of hunter-gatherers or assimilating them outright. But those centuries also saw a series of arrivals from peoples from the east, from horse-herding cultures like the Yamnaya, who brought their languages and genes. Until the current migrations, the gene pool of the Europeans on that mix between Anatolia, steppe and a little hunter gatherers. The 2012 study believed to find in the ice man the genetic signal of the steppe shepherds. But, according to the new work, the identification was due to contamination of the sample with modern DNA.
“The absence of inbreeding could be explained because the alpine is not a completely isolated area”
Albert Zink, director of the Eurac Research Institute for the Study of Mummies, in Italy
Albert Zink is the director of the Eurac Research Institute for the Study of Mummies, a group of research centers in Bolzano (in the Italian Tyrol). In that same city is where the museum that houses Ötzi is located. Zink was the first author of that 2012 work that began to draw what the ice man was like and is also now a co-author of Krause’s work. To explain the new profile, Zink notes that there is now much more ancient DNA and population genetics data to compare with: “In 2012, there were only a few genomes. In addition, we were able to reduce human contamination and thus clarify the ancestry of him, showing that there was no steppe origin ”.
Ötzi mummy, a man murdered more than 5,000 years ago and found in a glacier.AFP
In fact, Ötzi was about as anatolic as it gets. He shared a 92% genome with the first European Neolithic farmers who began to arrive from that region about 9,000 years ago. This very high degree of ancestry at a time when the steppes had already reached Europe, sometimes ending all genetic traces of the men who preceded them, shows a genetic isolation that can only be explained because he lived in the alpine valleys. It is logical to think that, given this isolation, in his genome there would be clues of a reduced genetic diversity and even of the inbreeding typical of isolated groups. But there is none of that in Ötzi.
“The absence of inbreeding could be explained by the fact that the alpine is not a completely isolated area,” recalls Zink. “Surely it was a sparsely populated area and with little contact with other populations, but there was still the possibility of coming into contact with populations from other valleys and it seems that they already crossed the Alps during the Neolithic. In addition, we know that they had commercial contacts with the Lake Garda region (near present-day Verona) and even with Tuscany. Therefore, there was not a complete isolation, but up to a certain point, ”he ends.
Science is not done with Ötzi. In the same way that his progress has made it possible to redraw the appearance and origin that it was believed to have in 2012, now they are working with new techniques to understand the microbiome and what the ice man’s immune system was like.
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