Who Killed the Iceman?

A Review of PBS and Nova’s Iceman Murder Mystery

by Dr. Tim Chaffey on November 16, 2012

PBS recently aired an intriguing documentary covering an investigation into the death of earth’s oldest cold case. How and why was Ötzi killed?

PBS recently aired an intriguing documentary (first aired in 2011) covering an investigation into the death of earth’s oldest cold case. Ötzi, named for the Ötztal Mountains in which he was discovered just 100 yards from the border of Austria and Italy in September 1991, is believed to be the oldest intact human body ever found. Apparently murdered, his body was then frozen for millennia—5,300 years according to the program. Can modern forensic science provide answers explaining Ötzi’s death? How and why was he killed? Was he a fugitive on the run, killed in battle, or murdered by an acquaintance?

Soon after being discovered, Ötzi’s remains were displayed in a custom-made frozen crypt at a museum in Bolzano, Italy, where they can still be seen today. The lone exception to his days in this cold enclosure came in November, 2010, when a team of nearly two dozen researchers came together for an in-depth investigation of the “iceman.” Ötzi was thawed out for nine hours, during which time he essentially received an autopsy as the scientists attempted to solve many of the mysteries surrounding his death. The PBS program showed footage from these procedures and interviewed some of the scientists, allowing them to explain their findings.

In 2001 a radiologist studying the original CT scans of Ötzi noticed something everyone else had assumed was a bone. Lodged deep in the mummy’s shoulder was an arrowhead. For the first time, researchers realized Ötzi’s death came about from more sinister circumstances than being lost in a snowstorm, as had originally been assumed by some researchers. Instead, he had been killed by another person. So the team carefully extracted the stone arrowhead and performed additional examinations.

In the course of their “autopsy,” the team discovered Ötzi still had about a half pound of food consisting of both meat and grains in his stomach. They learned that he had blood on the brain when he died, indicating he had suffered blunt force trauma just before his death. A deep cut on his right hand suggests he may have been involved in hand-to-hand combat with a knife-wielding foe. Material was extracted from Ötzi’s pelvic bone using a trephine needle, the same instrument used for bone marrow biopsies. This made me cringe since I underwent six of those procedures during my battle with leukemia, and they were quite painful—although obviously not for Ötzi. From this material, the researchers isolated some DNA, and they also found evidence of arthritis, atherosclerosis, and Lyme disease.

Much like a modern-day crime scene forensic investigation, the scientists attempted to put together the clues to figure out how Ötzi died, why he was killed, and who killed him. Most of the program consisted of this analysis, and I found it compelling to see how DNA, pollens, blood, and a host of other samples could be used to put the clues together like they were one giant jigsaw. Investigators concluded that Ötzi was probably killed by someone he knew because the arrow’s shaft had been removed, although the arrowhead obviously remained lodged in his back. Whoever killed him also left behind a valuable ax (perhaps to conceal the killer’s identity). Also, because he had a full stomach, Ötzi probably was not on the run or involved in a battle.

Of special interest were the “light bulb” moments where the scientists were shocked that the evidence didn’t fit their preconceived evolutionary beliefs—particularly regarding the intelligence of ancient man and the times in which he lived. The carbon-dating led scientists to place his death around 5,300 years ago. Of course, this date would be problematic for biblical creationists since it would mean that he lived prior to the Flood. Inflated radiocarbon dates are the result of several unverifiable assumptions,1 but the scientists on the program found the dates surprising for other reasons. For example, discovered with the iceman was a copper ax, an instrument the scientists said was far too advanced for someone of his time period—by a thousand years! Of course, they did not question the carbon dating process. Instead, the narrator said, “The discovery of the ax meant they were stepping out of the age of stone tools a thousand years before experts thought possible.” This prompted Patrick Hunt, an alpine archaeologist, to state the following:

To be that far ahead so far back, this is simply incredible. This is one find that changes forever what we think about the past. The mind that can create that copper ax is practically, and for all purposes, the same mind that can create a computer, a circuit board. In other words, Ötzi is us.

This is no surprise to biblical creationists who have been saying for years that ancient man was just as intelligent as modern man. Ancient man lacked the advantages of our modern technologies, but he was still as smart as we are today. When we start with the Word of God, we see that from the earliest times man possessed incredible technological acumen. Cain built a city, and his immediate descendants were capable of making musical instruments as well as working with bronze and iron (Genesis 4:16–22).

So just who was Ötzi and when did he live? The program would have us believe he lived approximately 5,300 years ago during a time of significant change.

Five thousand years ago, on the European continent, is a time before countries, before kings, even before the introduction of the wheel. In these alpine valleys, some people are living in small settlements, just beginning to grow crops like wheat and barley, and to raise goat, sheep, and cattle. But others are nomadic hunters, still depending on wild game for survival.

The evolutionary depiction of man developing from hunter-gatherer to farmer is exactly opposite of what the Bible teaches. From the very beginning of human history about 6,000 years ago, man has been involved in agriculture. Cain grew crops and Abel raised flocks (Genesis 4:2). While some people may have hunted animals for food prior to the Flood—in disobedience to God’s instructions—it wasn’t until after the deluge that God permitted mankind to eat meat (Genesis 9:3). At some point after the Flood Noah also farmed the ground. The first time hunting is mentioned in Scripture is in the context of Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod who lived during the events at Babel and may have been a leader in that rebellion (Genesis 10:9–10).

As people dispersed from Babel, they would have departed with varying degrees of technological and agricultural ability. Some of the groups built thriving civilizations in prime real estate, while others eked out a living as they spread around the globe. So at the same point in history, there were people living in palaces, cities, huts, caves, and jungles. They may have been engineers, builders, farmers, hunters, or herdsmen. However, their lot in life depended not on an evolutionary development of ability but on the skills and wisdom they brought from Babel as well as the environmental factors they faced.

So when did Ötzi live? We cannot be sure because the dating methods are so fraught with problems. People scattered from Babel c. 2250 BC, so he almost certainly lived more recently than that. He may have been one of Europe’s early settlers who worked hard to survive during the Ice Age caused by the Flood, or he may have lived long after that. What we do know is that “Ötzi is us” in the sense that he is one of us—fully human and created in the image of God, and he also lived in a fallen world full of death and disease brought about by the rebellion of our first parents, Adam and Eve.


  1. See the following articles for more details about the problems with radiocarbon dating: Carbon-14 Dating, Carbon-14 in Fossils and Diamonds, and A Creationist Puzzle.


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