Mountain Mummy: Stone tools reveal how Copper Age mountain people lived

Mountain Mummy: Stone tools reveal how Copper Age mountain people lived

The Tyrolean Iceman is a mummified body of a 45-year-old man originally discovered with his clothes and personal belongings in a glacier of the Alps mountains, in the South Tyrol region, Italy. Previous research showed that the Iceman lived during the Copper Age, between 3370-3100 BC, and was killed by an arrow. In this study, the researchers analyzed the Iceman’s chert tools to learn more about his life and the events that led to his tragic death.

A team of researchers led by Ursula Wierer from the Sopritendenza Archaeologia in Florence, Italy, used high-power microscopes and computed tomography to examine the chert tools in microscopic detail, including a dagger, endscraper, borer, flake, antler retoucher, and arrowheads. The structure of the tools’ chert reveals that the stone was collected from several different outcrops, some of which are located in what is now the Trentino region (Italy), at least 70km away from where the Iceman was thought to live. Comparing this ancient toolkit with other Copper Age artefacts revealed stylistic influences from distant alpine cultures. By carefully analyzing the wear traces of the Iceman’s chert tools, the authors concluded he was right-handed and probably had recently resharpened and reshaped some of his equipment.

Ursula Wierer says: “What we do is to examine tools from the past and reconstruct their life cycle in detail, from their production to their utilization until they were finally discarded. In this way we are able to determine many features of the lifestyle of prehistoric people. In Ötzi’s case we were dealing with the toolkit of a specific person, about whom we already knew a great deal. This made the research all the more exciting.”

These findings shed light into the Iceman’s personal history and support previous evidence suggesting that alpine Copper Age communities maintained long-distance cultural contacts and were well provisioned with chert.

“Through analyzing the Iceman’s toolkit from different viewpoints and reconstructing the entire life cycle of each instrument, we were able to gain insights into Ötzi’s cultural background, his individual history and his last hectic days,” Wierer concludes.

Reference:  Wierer U, Arrighi S, Bertola S, Kaufmann G, Baumgarten B, Pedrotti A, et al. (2018) The Iceman’s lithic toolkit: Raw material, technology, typology and use. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0198292.

Image Credit: Wierer et al (2018)


Tessa is the Journal Media Manager at PLOS. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in Rhetoric and Music. She can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @tessagregs.

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