Ötzi The Iceman’s Virulent Gut Bugs Are Uncovering A Mystery About Human History

When Ötzi the Iceman hiked across the Ötztal Alps 5,300 years ago, only to be murdered by a well-placed arrow, the 40-something ancient couldn’t have imagined that scientists in a distant future would be picking apart his stomach to learn more about his fellow Europeans.

Researchers recently thawed the ancient mummy and took a dozen biopsies from him, including the remains of his last meal and parts of his stomach and intestines. And in examining these bits and pieces, scientists learned that Ötzi the Iceman had a raging H. Pylori infection.

While this means he was likely troubled by an upset tummy when he died, Ötzi the Iceman’s gut bugs may reveal the history of European migration, Smithsonian reported.

Ötzi the Iceman lived during the Copper Age in what are the Eastern Italian Alps today, which straddle Italy and Austria. He was murdered sometime in his 40s. As luck would have it, after the arrow struck, he came to rest in a European glacier, where his very well preserved corpse would be found in 1991, the Guardian added.

Over the years, scientists have manhandled and examined his corpse and learned his age, cause of death, and what he wore and ate. His genome has been studied and descendants found, and all of his impressive 61 tattoos catalogued. They also learned that he was a rather unhealthy fellow, suffering from heart and gum disease, gallbladder stones, and parasites.

And H. Pylori (or Helicobacter pylori) was among his many, many troubles, although Albert Zink, with the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy, said we don’t know just how bad his infection was.

“When we looked at the genome of the Iceman’s H. pylori bacteria, we found that it’s quite a virulent strain, and we know that in modern patients it can cause stomach ulcers, gastric carcinoma and some pretty severe stomach diseases. We also found (evidence of) an inflammatory response, so we can say that he most probably had a quite severe H. pylori infection in his stomach. However, we simply don’t have enough of the stomach structure, the stomach walls, to determine the extent to which the disease impacted his stomach or how much he really suffered.”

While it would be interesting to learn just how many Rolaids Ötzi the Iceman would’ve needed to get through his day, his H. Pylori infection tells an even more interesting story.

This nasty little bacteria actually reveals the history of human migration since H. Pylori is so common a visitor in the human gut. The pathogen has evolved into different strains over time, depending on where it’s found in the world, and this evolution can be used to recreate human migration going back an amazing 100,000 years.

What’s interesting about Ötzi the Iceman’s gut bugs is that they’re not mixed with other strains and share ancestry with an Asian strain. That’s interesting because most modern Europeans’ H. Pylori infections have north African ancestry.

So if Ötzi the Iceman is a good spokesperson for the Europeans of 5,300 years ago, his bacteria suggests that the migration from Africa that brought the now-common strain to Europe hadn’t occurred yet in his time. Or, if it had, this migration hadn’t yet taken hold on the continent yet.

“Based on what we knew before, it was believed that the mixture of the ancestral African and Asian strains had already occurred maybe 10,000 years ago or even earlier,” Zink said. “But the very small part of African ancestry in the bacteria genome from the Iceman tells us that the migrations into Europe aren’t such an easy story.”

Ötzi the Iceman’s pure gut bacteria corroborates “recent archaeological and ancient DNA studies that suggest dramatic demographic changes shortly after the (his) time, including massive migration waves and significant demographic growth.”

Thanks to Ötzi the Iceman, scientists no longer believe that the African strain came to Europe during the Neolithic era 9,000 years ago; it was more likely within the past 5,000 years. Now scientists want to know how it arrived.

And now, one wandering ancient man, covered in tattoos, riddled with bad gums and probably chronic heartburn, will help modern scientists answer that question.

[Photo via Wikimedia Commons]