As glacier archaeologists we often get the question: “What would you most like to find?” Let’s be honest: We would all like to find an ice mummy like Ötzi. There is so much information to be gained from such rare finds. Analysis of ancient ice mummies can tell us when and where they lived. We get information on what they ate in the last days prior to dying. We learn about diseases they had, and why they died. And this is just for starters.
Ötzi, the iceman from the Tyrolean Alps, is the holy grail of glacial archaeology. He became a world-wide sensation when his mummified body was found in 1991. Each year, 250000 people visit the museum in Bolzano where he is exhibited. We published an extensive post on Ötzi here, discussing both the find itself and the scientific problems with the official Ötzi story.
Why are ice mummies so rare?
It was not realized that Ötzi was a very old ice mummy when he was discovered. Back then, people had no idea that human bodies could be preserved by the ice for such a long time. This lack of understanding led to unfortunate damage to the mummy and the artifacts during the recovery. To avoid such calamities, we have prepared a mummy-kit and a contingency plan if an ice mummy should appear in our own mountains here in Norway. However, the chances of finding an ice mummy are low and our mummy-kit is still unused.
The absence of ice mummies is not for the lack of people dying in the high mountains. Obviously, people died in the high mountains in the past – in blizzards, accidents, due to violence, or for purely natural reasons (more here). So why are there not more finds like Ötzi? The thing is that it would take a number of preconditions for their bodies to be preserved until today. First, the body would have to be lost, so that relatives could not recover it for proper burial. Secondly, the death would have to take place on non-moving ice (ice patches), allowing the ice to preserve it without crushing it. Thirdly, the body would have to stay on the surface for an initial freeze-drying before being encapsulated in the ice, without scavengers destroying it in the meantime. As you can see, chances of making it as an ice mummy are really slim.
The initial freeze-dyring on the surface was what preserved Ötzi for posterity. Without this natural mummification process, the decomposition of his body would have continued even inside the ice. This is demonstrated by the decomposed bodies of WWI soldiers found in the ice of the high alpine battlefields of the White War in Süd-Tyrol (check the stories in National Geographic and Motherboard).
The closest to an ice mummy we have gotten so far was the find of a Viking sword at high altitude in the Reinheimen Mountains in 2017. A likely explanation of this find is that the owner died of exposure after losing his way in a blizzard. If he had made it to the ice patch a bit further east, we could have a Viking ice mummy, The thought of that makes my head spin, but it was not to be (read the story here).
Human remains from the glaciers in the Alps.
The glacial ice of the Alps is known to contain hundreds of human bodies, mostly from the 20th century. They are mostly the result of people falling into crevasses while crossing glaciers. When the Alpine summer is especially warm, some of these remains melt out. On rare occasions, older human remains appear as well, such as the 17th century finds of human remains from the Porchabella Glacier and the Theodul Glacier. However, these human remains are skeletonized with scattered bones, not ice mummies. This is a result of the bodies having been inside moving glaciers, which both tear them apart and intermittently expose them to air. We covered these two finds and other examples of deaths in the high mountains in this post.
Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi
Ötzi is not alone, however. Partly mummified human remains and artifacts were found on a glacier on a remote mountain in British Columbia in 1999. The Canadian iceman was called Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi – “The Long Ago Person Found” by the local First Nations. Radiocarbon dates show that he died sometime between AD 1720 and 1850. The human remains are not exhibited like Ötzi, but were cremated and buried near the find spot. We covered this fascinating find in detail here.
Human bodies from permafrost ice
Frozen human bodies are also found outside glaciers and ice patches. Permafrost ice can preserve human bodies in a nearly pristine state. A large number of permafrost graves belonging to European explorers and whalers are known from the Arctic. A famous example is the three 19th century graves in permafrost of seamen from the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic. We take an in-depth look here.
There are a number of incredibly well-preserved burials of the Pazyryk culture in the Altai Mountains of Russia and Mongolia. The burials, which are from the 4th and 3rd century BC, consist of wooden chambers covered by large cairns of stone. The cairns produced a cooling effect, leading to the development of permafrost ice below. This preserved the human remains and the organic artifacts from the burials. The preservation of the human remains is varying, but a number of the burials have preserved skin with elaborate tattoos.
Freeze-dried human bodies
Human bodies can also be preserved by cold and dry conditions, which leads to freeze-drying – a natural mummification process. Mummies of children sacrificed by the Incas are known from numerous mountain tops high in the Andes. Inuit mummies are known from graves in rock shelters in Greenland. We covered these types of mummies in this post.