Discovery: Iceman’s Gut Offers Clues To Human Migration Into Europe


A frozen mummy which may have died from a wicked stomach ache caused by the H. pylori bacteria, has helped date a migration wave from Africa.

Ötzi the Iceman, is the name given to the the famous 5,300-year-old ice mummy discovered in the Alps in 1991, who CT scans show was a fit man in his 40s to 50s murdered by an arrow shot into his shoulder.

Ötzi was subjected to a New DNA analysis and it was found that his gut contains a strain of infectious stomach bacteria not common in modern humans.

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The near-ubiquitous gut bacterium Helicobacter pylori causes some form of stomach ulcer and stomach cancer. As reported on Thursday in the Journal Science, the ancient strain found in the Iceman—the oldest ever sequenced—suggests that he lived before the waves of human migration that came to define the gut microbes of modern Europeans.

The study adds to the incredible amount of information scientists have gleaned from the Iceman, one of science’s most carefully studied cadavers. Ever since hikers discovered the frozen remains near the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, researchers have pored over them, studying everything from the make of his clothing to the pollen grains embedded inside him. The Iceman’s body has revealed clues to how early Europeans looked, lived, and died.

H. pylori, which infected about half of all humans until recent hygienic advances, is one of humankind’s most persistent companions. In fact, genetic family trees of H. pylori backtracked from modern strains suggest that it accompanied modern humans out of Africa more than 100,000 years ago, hitchhiking around the world from stomach to stomach causing stomach Ulcer and Gastritis.

Prof Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, at the European Academy in Bolzano (EURAC), said:

“One of the first challenges was to obtain samples from the stomach without doing any damage to the mummy.

“Therefore we had to completely defrost the mummy, and we finally could get access by an opening – by an incision that was already done by a previous study.

“We were able to obtain samples from the stomach content, from some of the intestinal content, and also from the parts of the stomach wall.”

The bacteria are found in about half of the population today, and about 10% of cases can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining and ulcers.

The researchers do not know what clinical symptoms Ötzi displayed, but there was evidence that the bacteria reacted with the Iceman’s immune system.

Sequencing the genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA) of the microbe provided new information about ancient human migration.

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The strain that infects Europeans today is thought to be the result of two older strains – one African and one Asian – combining.

Essentially this means infected people from these two areas must have come together and mixed.

However, the microbe found in Ötzi was different.

Thomas Rattei, from the University of Vienna, in Austria, who worked on the study said: 

“We had assumed that we would find the same strain of Helicobacter in Ötzi as is found in Europeans today,”

“It turned out to be a strain that is mainly observed in Central and South Asia today.”

This suggests that there may have been a wave of people from Africa, who were carrying the bacteria, into Europe at some point after Ötzi’s death.

Frank Maixner, from Eurac Research said:

The recombination of the two types of Helicobacter may have only occurred at some point after Ötzi’s era, and this shows that the history of settlements in Europe is much more complex than previously assumed,”

It also adds to the growing evidence that rather than a single movement of humans out of Africa and into Europe, there were several migrations.

Sources: and