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Ice

The Iceman

Image:OetzitheIceman02.jpg

More than ten years ago, tourists in the Austria-Italy border region of the Alpines discovered a 5000 year old dead body - it had mummified in the glacier conditions that intensified after the man fell dead in a small gully, which protected the body from the destructive movement of the glacier ice passing above him. I have followed the topic since then - it is fascinating not only because the condition and content of the body revealed various pieces of information about life in Europe in neolithic times, but also in the methods used by scientists to extract information from it.

The content of the man's digestive system revealed that he had goat meat a couple of days before death, and venison a bit later, accompanied by bread - the wheat grains in the stomach had bits of charcoal mixed in, showing that the flour had been baked on an open wood flame - and the presence of pollen in different positions of the gut, deposited at different times by the water he drank, reveals that he was in the pine forest earlier, climbed up to higher altitudes where only shrubs could grow, but then doubled back to the forest before climbing up again towards a mountain pass that would have taken him into the valley on the Italian side. Before he reached the pass, however, he was shot in the back with an arrow with a stone tip, which severed an artery causing him to faint and then die from the rapid loss of blood - this was revealed when the body was examined using a portable X-ray machine several years after the body's discovery - X-ray examination was not attempted before because the body had to be kept frozen for fear of decomposition as it had to be transported to a hospital with the necessary machinery. Later a CT scan was carried out, with very careful wrapping to prevent the body from warming up and rapid transport and return between the hospital and the museum (with police escort to clear traffic).

The personal possessions were also revealing. He carried a copper axe, a rare and precious weapon/tool in those days, showing that he was a person of high status, but other items indicate he had fallen on hard times: the bow he carried was newly made and still unfinished, and so were the arrows in his quaver - he seems to have used up his arrows and lost his bow in earlier fighting. There was also a one-two day injury on his hand supporting the idea of recent fighting. His movement pattern hints that he was trying to evade his pursuers and make a getaway across the mountains but was caught up or ambushed by his enemies. It was not clear whether he was running away alone or had with him women/children who would be captured and taken back by the victors of the fight.

An interesting detail is that the person who shot the fatal arrow came up to the dying person and removed the arrow shaft, but did not take his possessions - the copper axe was obviously the most valuable, but even the warm winter clothing and the unfinished bow/arrow/quaver would be useful. One explanation was that the killer wished to keep his identity secret - the arrow shaft might have his name/tribal symbol on it, and having the dead man's possession would reveal his killing. However, I think this is a weak proposition, since the body was in an inaccessible location and in fact remained undiscovered for centuries, and the circumstance of the death hints that the man was on the run because he had too many enemies, so that the killer would want to announce the death and take credit for it. I believe a better explanation is superstition: no possessions were taken back in case the man's soul might be attached to them and would return with them to haunt his enemies, and the killer did not want his arrow shaft to be left behind creating a spiritual proximity.

It was global warming that reduced the ice cover on the body allowing people to discover it. Below I will discuss this issue.

 

 

Global Warming and Melting Icecaps

Will melting of the Greenland icecap trigger abrupt climate change?

We often hear arguments that (a) the globe warms and cools in a regular cycle, and the current warming is not due to bad environmental management. (b) there is no clear trend of consisten temperature increase at present; in other words, maybe global warming does not exist, or it exists but no one is to blame.

However, the polar icecap is certainly melting, and recently we heard that the north-west passage, linking Atlantic with Pacific Oceans across the north of Canada (the path across the north of Russian is the north-east passage) is now open and no longer blocked by permanent ice.

I believe melting ice explains why temperature has not shown a clear rising trend: melting ice absorbs the heat, sending cool water from the poles to other regions. Only be after most of the ice at the two poles has already melted will temperature significantly increase, and I think quite rapidly then. 

 

The North American Ice Sheet

The earth has gone through many warming and freezing cycles, and the most recent ice age began its demise around 15,000 years ago. Before this warming up, most of Europe, Siberia and Canada/ Northern USA were covered by an ice layer several kilometers thick.

Our ancesters left africa somewhere around 100,000 years ago, and by 50,000BC homo sapiens had reached both Southern Europe and Australia. Because sea levels were much lower at the time with much water frozen in the thick ice cover, many of the current land areas separate by sea water were linked together, so that one could just walk across the Bospherus and the Bering Strait. Usually, the people  moved when the land they previously occupied lost fertility or animals in the area got hunted out. This usually take decades, even centuries, so that people migrated slowly. By the time they moved across Siberia and reached America, it was around 20,000BC. Because of the North American Ice Sheet, they had to wait longer to cross into the great plains and then move south to central and south America.

Curiously, however, while all studies indicate the ice did not melt enough to creat a passage till about 15,00BC, an archaeological site was found in Pennsylvania and dated to 18,000BC!! How did the people get there? If the site was on west coast, one could explain that the people came down from Alaska by boat. There is however no simple way to envisage arrival from Europe by boat in that era. Another curious issue is that the Olmec Culture, which existed probably 2500 year ago, left behind a number of huge stone carvings of human heads that looked distincly African, but there was no obvious way for Africans to have migrated to central America before Columbus. There are still many things we do not know.