Mystery Over 5th Century B.C. Siberian ‘Ice Princess’ Solved

Discovered in 1993, the Siberian Ice Princess — sometimes also referred to as the Altay Princess, for the region in which she was found — has captured the imaginations of many scientists, for many reasons.

She was a well-preserved mummy, to begin with; in fact, she was so well-preserved that her ornate, delicate tattoos were still visible on her skin. She was buried wearing beautiful clothing, from the finely woven, wool skirt to the blouse made from wild-silk. She was also adorned with beautiful jewelry and crowned with a headpiece that was incredibly elaborate. Her clothing, combined with the fact that she was buried with household items, treasures, and six horses (to ensure both status and movement in the next world) virtually guarantees that she was a well-respected, wealthy member of the society of tribal horse nomads to which scientists believe she belongs.

The Siberian Ice Princess

Yet she was only 25 years of age, scientists estimated. How, exactly did she die?

And amid the cosmetics and household items buried with the Ice Princess, scientists found a container of cannabis. What did that signify?

Recently, a team of Russian scientists studying the Ice Princess were able to answer some of the questions.

Using MRI scans, the group was able to determine that the Ice Princess was suffering from breast cancer, likely stage 4.

“We are dealing with a primary tumor in the right breast and right axial lymph nodes with metastases,” team member Andrey Letyagin told the Siberian Times. “I am quite sure of the diagnosis — she had cancer.”

The MRI scans also showed the the Ice Princess also suffered from a bone infection called osteomyelitis. Letyagin also said that scans found evidence of injuries that would be consistent with a fall, perhaps from a horse — a skull fracture and dislocations of joints. But the team maintains that it was cancer that killed her. The Ice Princess showed signs of extreme emaciation, and as her status was obviously one of wealth and perhaps even reverence, the team maintains that only cancer could have caused the emaciation. The Ice Princess would have been cared through another illness.

Archaeologist Dr. Natalya Polosmak attempted to recreate the last few months of the life of the Siberian Ice Princess.

“When she arrived in winter camp on Ukok in October, she had the fourth stage of breast cancer,” she wrote. “She had severe pain and the strongest intoxication, which caused the loss of physical strength.

“In such a condition, she could fall from her horse and suffer serious injuries. She obviously fell on her right side, hit the right temple, right shoulder and right hip. Her right hand was not hurt, because it was pressed to the body, probably by this time the hand was already inactive. Though she was alive after her fall, because edemas are seen, which developed due to injuries.

“Anthropologists believe that only her migration to the winter camp could make this seriously sick and feeble woman mount a horse. More interesting is that her kinsmen did not leave her to die, nor kill her, but took her to the winter camp.

“In other words, this confirmed her importance, yet though she is often called a ‘princess’, the truth maybe she was was – in fact – a female shaman.

“It looks like that after arriving to the Ukok Plataue she never left her bed. The pathologist believes that her body was stored before the funerals for not more than six months, more likely it was two-to-three months.

“She was buried in the middle of June – according the last feed that was found in the stomachs of horses buried alongside her. The scientists think that she died in January or even March, so she was alive after her fall for about three to five months, and all this time she lay in bed.”

And so it seems as though the container of cannabis found with the Ice Princess may have contributed to her later injuries from a horse, but was also used to alleviate the pain of both the recent injuries and the final stages of breast cancer, which scientists believed began to develop several years prior, when she was about 20 years of age.

Siberia’s Ice Princess has provided scientists and archaeologists with a wealth of material for study — from her intricate tattoos and mode of dress, to the household goods and treasures she was buried with, to the medicine she used to try and treat her illness.

For more on how science and history learns from mummies, read about Incan mummies here.

[Image via The Siberian Times]