GENOMEWEB (U.S.), SCIENCE NEWS (U.S.), DIE ZEIT (Germany), WIENER ZEITUNG (Austria), SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (U.S.)
The 5,300-year-old mummy nicknamed Ötzi, or the Iceman, was found by German tourists in the South Tirolean Alps in 1991, and he continues to be scientists' richest source of information on prehistoric Europeans.
In February 2012, the sequencing of his genome revealed that Ötzi was related to modern-day Sardinians, reports Science News. Sardinians, isolated on their Italian island by their mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, form one of the most distinct genetic groups in Europe. Sardinia is hundreds of miles from the Alps, and this relationship had puzzled scientists. Was Ötzi a Sardinian wanderer who happened to find himself in the mountains?
Scientific American cites researchers’ findings that the Iceman had brown hair, brown eyes, and type O blood, was about 45 years old and 5’5” tall, and was provided with sophisticated equipment and clothing including a copper axe, a fire-making kit, a medicine bag and a longbow. Further studies have shown that he was probably childless, lactose-intolerant, and suffered from Lyme Disease and hardened arteries, reported Die Zeit.
Now, Ötzi has also contributed to the long-running debate about the introduction of farming in Europe. Did farming spread as an idea, picked up by local hunter-gatherers and then passed on to their neighbors? Or did it spread in the form of newly arrived farmers from the Middle East, where agriculture first developed, coming into Europe as a peaceful or aggressive wave of settlers? A team of American, Italian and German researchers from Stanford now thinks it may have the answer.
At the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics last week, says GenomeWeb, Martin Sikora of Stanford said that he and his colleagues discovered that Ötzi’s DNA resembles not only that of modern Sardinians, but also DNA from two other ancient farmers from Sweden and Bulgaria, which was analyzed earlier this year by a Swedish team, as reported in Science magazine.
On the other hand, the DNA of two ancient hunter-gatherers from Sweden and Spain more closely resembles that of the modern northern European population, reports GenomeWeb.
This offers evidence that Ötzi, who probably spent his life in the Alps hundreds of miles from the island of Sardinia, was probably part of a larger group of farming people from the eastern Mediterranean, while the hunter-gatherers were a different population. The other farmers may have intermarried with the Europeans, becoming more like them genetically, while Sardinians remained isolated, preserving the original genes of the first farmers in Europe.
The spread of agricultural settlers into what had been a forested land of hunters in southern Europe may not have been uncontested. In 2001, researchers found an arrowhead lodged in the Iceman’s shoulder, which probably killed him.