Ötzi the Iceman’s last meal shows how Copper Age people ate on the run
In his final days, the Iceman ate a hearty mountaineer’s diet of red deer, wild goat, and whole grain einkorn wheat—but he may also have accidentally eaten toxic ferns.
Even after being chewed up, swallowed, partially digested in Ötzi’s stomach, and then frozen in a glacier for 5,300 years, some bits of Ötzi’s last meal are still recognizable, at least under a microscope. Frank Maixner of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies and his colleagues saw compact bits of fatty tissue and bundles of muscle fibers, mixed with pollen from a genus of wheat called einkorn, which grows wild in the region but also includes some of the earliest domesticated wheat species. Mixed in with the partly-digested food bits, however, were spores from a fern called bracken, which is toxic to humans and other animals if not properly prepared.
Red meat and healthy whole grains
Chemically, the remnants of Ötzi’s partially digested meal contained a compound called phytanic acid, which is a hallmark of fat or dairy products from ruminants like cattle, deer, and goats. There were also minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, sodium, and zinc, all of which are found in red meat and dairy products. And among the 167 different animal and plant proteins in the samples, Maixner and his colleagues found six that are specific to structures in the long contracting threads in ibex skeletal muscles—leg of wild goat, perhaps. Another protein in the mix is found only in deer muscles.