Last updated July 16, 2018 at 5:18 pm
Italian researchers delve into a 5,000-year-old man to see what he had for dinner.
For the first time ever, we’ve been given an insight into the last meal of a 5000-year old caveman – and if you thought you had too much fat in your diet, chances are it is nothing like this guy.
Ötzi was discovered in 1991 by hikers in the eastern Italian Alps, having been frozen for 5300 years like a forgotten dim sim in the bottom of your freezer. His deep freeze made him the oldest naturally preserved ice mummy ever found.
Scientists have been studying the remains ever since. We know he was most likely murdered by being shot with an arrow through his shoulder. He was around 45 years old, and even sported several tattoos created by small incisions which had charcoal dust rubbed into them.
And now, scientists have picked apart the contents of his stomach to see what he ate.
Ötzi’s last meal before murder
Delving into his stomach, the researchers found that Ötzi’s diet was composed of a ridiculous amount of fat – about half of his stomach contents. Ibex, a species of wild goat found in the area, was the likely source.
“We reconstructed the Iceman’s last meal, showing that he has had a remarkably high proportion of fat in his diet, supplemented with wild meat from ibex and red deer, cereals from einkorn, and with traces of toxic bracken (ferns),” said Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.
The wild meat was either eaten fresh or dried or smoked over a fire.
The bracken, however, has everyone stumped. The researchers say it’s possible that the Iceman suffered from intestinal problems caused by parasites (found earlier in his gut) and took the bracken as a medicine. Alternatively, he may have used the fern’s leaves to wrap food and eaten the toxic spores accidentally.
Additionally, evidence was found that is diet also included cereals and whole grains, while metabolites also suggest that he probably also ate herbs. Traces of goat milk was also found – either as milk or milk products like cheeses.
It’s probably safe to say our ancient ancestors were hardly Masterchefs.
On his way to a heart attack
While it wouldn’t make standard on television cooking shows, the fat-rich diet does actually make sense in the alpine region that Ötzi lived.
“The high and cold environment is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss,” said Albert Zink, who was part of the research team.
Zink and the research team believe that Ötzi probably knew he needed to have a high-energy diet in survive living 3200m above sea level, so made a choice to eat a lot of fat as an energy source to sustain himself.
However, the downside of a high fat diet is a high level of cholesterol in the blood and a higher risk of heart disease. When the scientists looked at his blood vessels, they found that he had atherosclerotic plaques forming – chances are he was on his way to a heart attack.
Although he was discovered over 25 years ago, it’s taken until now to study his stomach because scientists couldn’t find where Iceman’s stomach even was. Re-investigation of CT scans revealed that it had moved up inside his body during the mummification process.
The researchers combined classical microscopic and modern molecular approaches to determine the exact composition of the Iceman’s diet prior to his death. The broad-spectrum approach allowed them to make inferences based on ancient DNA, proteins, metabolites, and lipids.
“The stomach material was, compared to previously analyzed lower intestine samples, extraordinarily well preserved, and it also contained large amounts of unique biomolecules such as lipids, which opened new methodological opportunities to address our questions about Ötzi’s diet,” Maixner says.
Their analysis also revealed traces of the original gut bacterial community present in the Iceman’s intestinal contents. The researchers say they plan to conduct further studies aimed to reconstruct the ancient gut microbiomes of the Iceman and other mummified human remains.
The research has been published in Current Biology