An almost-complete DNA sequence has been published for one of the world’s oldest preserved bodies, and its revelations provide a fascinating insight into the physical infirmities suffered by our ancestors.
Otzi, also known simply as The Iceman, was discovered in the Alps in 1991, where he’d been preserved for about 5300 years. Now that he’s been subjected to a fairly through genome sequencing, we can tell that he may have had Lyme disease, a predisposition for hardened arteries, type-O blood, and lactose intolerance. I’m kind of disappointed to learn he didn’t have peanut allergies or chronic fatigue syndrome.
As Taylor says to Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes, “I’d call him a close relative, for he was plagued by most of man’s ills.”
My daughter and I toured the Mummies of the World exhibit when it hit the Franklin Institute, and the most striking thing, staring down through the glass, was the almost tangible connection to the past they afforded. You can see a hundred skeletons and not forge the same connection that you can from seeing a single mummy, and the reason is very simply: flesh.
Although just dessicated skin and tissue and hair are left, these are the things of life. We associate these fragile remains with the presence of living humans who breathed and laughed and loved. To see a bone is to see some part of someone that is almost always hidden away. To see a mummy is to see the person one step closer to the way they may have appeared. My daughter, 10 years old at the time and easily disgusted, was not disturbed by them. There was something almost touching in their fragility. Each told a story, particularly the Orlovits family, the most modern people in the exhibit.
Otzi opens this window further than any other mummy, giving us not just a glimpse, but a tactile connection to a world six thousand years past.
The DNA sequencing also raises the possibility of discovering some of his descendants:
Zink’s team also gathered information about Ötzi’s ancestry. His Y chromosome possesses mutations most commonly found among men from Sardinia and Corsica, and his nuclear genome puts his closest present-day relatives in the same area. Perhaps Ötzi’s kind once lived across Europe, before dying out or interbreeding with other groups everywhere except on those islands.
That makes sense, says Eske Willerslev, a palaeogenomicist at the University of Copenhagen. “Sardinians are a group that people have considered distinct from other Europeans, and in this regard it would be interesting if they were more widely distributed in the past.”
If you’d like to take a much closer look at Otzi, go to Iceman Photoscan, which offers alarmingly detailed photos of his entire body, some of them in 3D. You can zoom right into his pores, if you like that kind of thing.
(Please note: if you’re a Young Earth Creationist, please imagine these pictures as a creation of the Jim Henson Workshop in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.)