News Release

Mystery of 5,000 year old glacier mummy solved

Iceman 'Ötzi's' cause of death proved by researcher at the University of Zurich

Peer-Reviewed Publication


An Italian-Swiss research team, including Dr. Frank Rühli of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich in Switzerland proved the cause of death of the Iceman (“Ötzi,” 3300 BC) by modern X-ray-based technology. A lesion of a close-to-the-shoulder artery has been found thanks to a CT scan or multislice computed tomography, finally clarifying the world-famous glacier mummy’s cause of death. This scientific work appeared online in the Journal of Archaeological Science, published by Elsevier and will be covered in the German and US issues of National Geographic magazine in July.

The Iceman is a uniquely well-preserved late Neolithic glacier mummy, found in 1991 in South Tyrol at 3,210 meters above sea level. He has undergone various scientific examinations, as human bodies are the best source for the study of life conditions in the past as well as the evolution of today’s diseases.

In 2005, the glacier mummy was reinvestigated in South Tyrol by Dr. F. Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, in close collaboration with Dr. Eduard Egarter Vigl of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, as well as Drs. Patrizia Pernter and Paul Gostner from the Department of Radiology at General Hospital Bolzano, by state-of-the-art multislice computed tomography (CT).

Analysis of the CT images showed a lesion of the dorsal wall of the left subclavian artery, the artery underneath the clavicle, caused by an earlier, already-detected arrowhead that remains in the back. In addition, a large haematoma could be visualized in the surrounding tissue. By incorporating historic as well as modern data on the survival ship of such a severe lesion, the scientists concluded that the Iceman died within a short time due to this lesion.

“Such obvious proof of a vascular lesion in a body of this historic age is unique, and it helped to determine the cause of this extraordinary death without a destructive autopsy. We look forward to further investigating the circumstances surrounding the Iceman’s sudden death,” explains Dr. Dr. Rühli.


About the Swiss Mummy Project

Dr. Frank Rühli, senior assistant and research group leader at the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich, co-chairs with Dr. Thomas Böni of the Orthopedic University Clinic Balgrist the Swiss Mummy Project, a mummy research project running for more than 10 years at the University of Zurich. Mummy research is nowadays an interdisciplinary worldwide field of science, which is crucial in contributing to the understanding of disease and culture. Dr. Rühli, along with Drs. Egarter Vigl and Gostner, were chosen for scientific consultancy for the determination of the cause of death of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt in 2005.

The aim of the Swiss Mummy Project is, whenever possible, to use non-invasive methods to gain information on life, death and after-death alterations (e.g., embalming-related changes) on historic mummies. To achieve this, mostly radiological examination techniques such as CT are used. The work of the Swiss Mummy Project is funded by the Forschungskredit (research fund) of the University of Zurich as well as by collaborations with Siemens Medical Solutions, Zuse-Institute Berlin and the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim.

About the Journal of Archaeological Science

The Journal of Archaeological Science provides an international forum for archaeologists and scientists from widely different scientific backgrounds who share a common interest in using scientific methods to increase the information derived from archaeological research. Published by Elsevier (, this established monthly journal publishes original research papers, major review articles, and short notes of wide archaeological significance.

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