Study cracks 5300-year-old dress code

By Rachel Feltman

Researchers were able to work out what Otzi was wearing when he died and create a reconstruction of what they believe he would have looked like. Photo / South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
Researchers were able to work out what Otzi was wearing when he died and create a reconstruction of what they believe he would have looked like. Photo / South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology

Otzi, who are you wearing?

When Otzi the Iceman was discovered in 1991, his 5300-year-old body had been remarkably well preserved by his glacial tomb. And while they weren't exactly runway ready, his clothes held up pretty nicely as well.

The garments were clearly made of animal skins and furs, but scientists had no way of knowing what species the ensemble had come from.

DNA sequencing has come a long way since then, and now we've finally had a peek into Copper Age wardrobe choices. According to a study published yesterday in Nature Reports, Otzi was wearing at least five different animals when he met his maker. For now, the team has analysed the mitochondrial DNA in his leggings (goat), loincloth (sheep), shoelace (cow leather), hat (brown bear), coat (sheep and goat) and quiver (roe deer).

That's quite the menagerie. In fact, Otzi's coat alone contained the hides of four different individual animals, suggesting that individuals might have patched up their clothing with random pelts as needed.

But the researchers don't think the Iceman got dressed in the dark.

"It's not chaotic," study author Frank Maixner of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman told Smithsonian Magazine. For example, cow leather, which was found in Otzi's shoes, was the sturdiest material on his body - suggesting his boots were made for walking. Sheep leather, which made up parts of his striped coat, would have kept him warmer than other materials. And his leggings are made of the same material as some other Copper Age legwear found nearby, suggesting that goatskin was chosen for a reason.

"It's really ordered, there's a structure, there's a fashion, in my eyes," Maixner said.

The analysis provides a wealth of information about how Otzi's people lived. After all, fashion choices were far from frivolous at the time: the species found on Otzi's body contribute to our knowledge of what animals his people domesticated (previous studies had suggested he spent his life farming and herding animals) or hunted (his last meal contained ibex and deer). But it's also possible that Otzi got some of his leathers - or even finished pieces of clothing - by trading with folk from other regions. Unless we find some other astonishingly well-preserved icemen sitting around the alps and cross-check his wardrobe choices, we may never know.

- Washington Post

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