Detective Investigates an Ancient Mystery

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

Using contemporary techniques, scientists have been able to reconstruct what the ancient man nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman probably looked like. Now researchers hope that modern police work can help them discover who killed Ötzi and why.

Using contemporary techniques, scientists have been able to reconstruct what the ancient man nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman probably looked like. Now researchers hope that modern police work can help them discover who killed Ötzi and why.

Detective Inspector Alexander Horn had a real mystery on his hands.

A body was found high in the mountains. The victim was wounded in his back. He was about 45 years old, five and a half feet tall, and weighed 110 pounds. He had long brown hair and brown eyes.

The Detective Inspector knew the time and place of the crime. However, everyone involved had been dead for many years. This mystery would be tricky to solve since the man was killed around 3,300 BCE, more than 5,000 years ago. This victim was Ötzi the Iceman.

An Ancient Victim

In 1991 hikers found a body frozen in an enormous mass of ice called a glacier in the Ötztal Alps, mountains located on the border between Italy and Austria. At first they thought it was the body of a recently killed mountaineer. However, when archaeologists examined the body, they found that it was thousands of years old.

This accidental discovery made headlines. Researchers nicknamed the ancient man Ötzi after the Ötzal Alps where he was discovered. Ötzi is now known as the world’s most perfectly preserved mummy.

Ancient mummies were usually buried after their bodies were prepared in special rituals. These rituals often involved removing the body’s internal organs, or preserving the body with special chemicals. Also, most of the world’s mummies have been discovered in deserts. Over time, dry and hot desert air can damage mummies by making them very brittle. This can make them hard to study.

Ötzi was different. Ötzi was buried in ice, not a hot and dry desert. The moist, icy air of the snowy mountains helped keep his skin and organs intact. It was a special opportunity to learn how ancient people lived.

Since 1998, people can visit Ötzi at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Ötzi is safely preserved in a special cold room.

Scene of the Crime

About ten years after Ötzi’s discovery, an X-ray revealed a flint arrowhead in his back. It seemed like Ötzi the Iceman was the victim of an ancient crime.

Since then, scientists have discovered techniques that give clues about how people lived long ago. Today, researchers know how Ötzi looked and what he ate. However, they still didn’t know who killed Ötzi or why. For that, instead of asking  a scientist or archaeologist, they turned to a modern-day police officer.

Detective Inspector Alexander Horn is a member of the Munich Police Department in Munich, Germany. Horn is well-known as an expert in profiling. Profiling is the use of small pieces of evidence to help develop a story about a crime and the people involved in it.

At first Horn wasn’t sure he could help. Since Ötzi had been dead for thousands of years, Horn thought there would be few clues about his death. However, once he saw the body, Horn felt more optimistic.

“I thought it was too difficult, too much time has passed,” Horn admitted. “But actually he’s in better condition than recent homicide victims I’ve worked on who have been found out in the open.”

Looking for Clues

Detective Inspector Horn studied everything researchers knew about Ötzi. He also examined the preserved body with a detective’s eye. Slowly, Horn assembled a list of clues. He hoped these clues could help him solve the case.


  • The victim’s digestive tract contained pollen.
  • The victim had a partially-healed wound on his right hand.
  • A copper ax was found with the body.
  • The victim’s legs were very well muscled. There were few signs of fat on his body.
  • The stomach contents showed what the victim ate before he died.

While facts like these sound like they would be of interest to scientists, could they help a detective solve an ancient crime?

Pictured is a reconstruction of the copper axe found with Ötzi the Iceman's frozen body. Because Ötzi's killer left the valuable axe behind, it seems likely that the ancient man was not killed in a robbery attempt.

Pictured is a reconstruction of the copper ax found with Ötzi the Iceman’s frozen body. Because Ötzi’s killer left this valuable item behind, it seems likely that the ancient man was not killed in a robbery attempt.

The Story of a Crime

The clues told Horn a lot about Ötzi. For example, because of the pollen in his digestive tract, he concluded that Ötzi probably died in late spring or early summer.

Since his leg muscles we so strong, Horn concluded that in the days before his death, Ötzi hiked down from the mountains to his home village in a valley. Because of the wound on his hand, Horn believes that once he was in his village, Ötzi became involved in a fight with others.

“It was a very active defensive wound,” Horn believes, “and interesting in the context that no other injuries are found on the body, no major bruises or stab wounds, so probably he was the winner of that fight, even possibly he killed the person who tried to attack him.”

From the items found with his body, Horn thinks Ötzi visited the village for supplies needed for another trip through the mountains. Some of these provisions were found in the victim’s backpack.

Ötzi’s stomach contents showed the foods he had eaten at his last meal. Ötzi ate a full meal consisting of ibex meat, einkorn wheat, a fat such as cheese or bacon, and a type of fern called bracken. Since some of the food was cooked, Horn thinks that Ötzi didn’t think he was in danger. “If you’re in a rush and the first thing is to get away from someone trying to kill you, that’s not what you do,” Horn said.

Ötzi received the fatal wound about half an hour after his meal. After examining the wound, Horn determined that the killer shot Ötzi in the back from about 100 feet away. The killer fired an arrow at Ötzi from so far away because he might have been worried about Ötzi’s expertise in fighting. This is a fact the killer may have learned firsthand from the fight in the village, Horn thinks.

Horn also thinks the killing was not part of a robbery. The killer left Ötzi’s copper ax behind even though it was extremely valuable. Horn believes the killer thought that if his friends and family suddenly saw him with an expensive weapon, they might blame him for the killing. “You go back to your village with this unusual ax, it would be pretty obvious what had happened,” Horn said.

In Horn’s mind, the clues led to one conclusion: Ötzi was killed in retaliation for the fight in the village before he made his trip back up to the mountains.

Although it happened thousands of years ago, Horn feels that this crime was very modern, “pretty much what you see all the time nowadays,” he said. “Most homicides are personal, and follow violence and an escalation of violence. I want to follow him, find him and kill him. All the emotions we have in homicide, these things have not died out in all these years.”

Although Horn’s investigation revealed much about the way Ötzi died, he thinks no one will ever discover the identity of Ötzi’s killer. “I’m not optimistic we’ll find the offender in Ötzi’s case,” he said.

Additional Resources

Read more about the investigation into Ötzi’s death at the New York Times and Public Radio International.

Visit Ötzi at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology.

Learn about other ways researchers can determine how people lived long ago at PBS.

Images and Sources

Ötzi Photo: Thilo Parg
Ötzi Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0

Ax Photo: Bullenwächter
Ax Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0