Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Ice Maiden and the Ice Man

The Ice Maiden found in Peru in 1995 and the Ice Man uncovered in the Alps in 1991 come from distinct geographic and temporal locations; however, many of the conditions leading to preservation are remarkably similar. Comparison of the two cases may be able to provide insight into the difficulties and potential advantages of uncovering remains in such contexts.

How were the mummies discovered? What was the recovery process like?

The Ice Maiden, also called Juanita, is a 500-year-old Inca mummy found high in the mountains of current day Peru. She was one of the child sacrifices made as a part of the Capacocha rituals (“Peruvian Ice Maiden,” 2005). She had been especially preserved through time by accumulated ice and snow; however, the eruption of the nearby Mt. Sabancaya in 1990 produced hot ash, which began to melt away this covering (Clark, 1998; World of Forensic Science, 2005). In 1995, anthropologist John Reinhard and Miguel Zarate found bright feathers, a sacred shell, and other evidence of an Incan ceremonial platform near the summit of Mt. Ampato; upon further investigation, they found the Ice Maiden surrounded in other artifacts (World of Forensic Science, 2005). Once the remains had been discovered, however, there still remained challenges. Juanita had been uncovered by the volcanic eruption, and when found had not yet been reburied by heavy winter storms, and so Reinhard and Zarate did not have to worry about the potentially damaging process of freeing the remains from the ice (Clark, 1998). However, as Reinhard describes in his 2005 book on the discovery, there were still many concerns to consider. To leave the mummy would mean allowing its continued exposure to the elements or the possible loss of it under new snowfall; however, removing it involved the logistical problems of moving the remains over treacherous terrain without causing damage and the likelihood of political objections to removal without a permit (p. 30- 31). After weighing the options, Reinhard chose to remove the Ice Maiden from the summit immediately.

The Ice Man is a 5,000-year-old mummy found in the Italian Alps in 1991 (Iceman Murder Mystery, 2011). As explained by Alpine archaeologist Dr. Patrick Hunt, at the end of the summer in 1991, two hikers in the Otztal Alps at an elevation of around 10,500 feet found the Ice Man partially exposed in a melting glacier. The location where he was located was normally under a glacier, which had contributed to his preservation; however, dramatic warming in the Alps in the last half century caused the glacier to begin melting, exposing the remains (personal communication, April 11, 2012). This discovery was similar to that of the Ice Maiden in its general context, with both mummies being preserved by extreme snow and ice and only uncovered recently as a result of changing environmental conditions. However, in other ways they each provided distinct challenges to those who discovered their remains. Unlike the Ice Maiden, the hikers who discovered the Ice Man did not realize the significance of their find, initially believing him to be a recent homicide victim, until the medical team examining him recognized the significance of the stone tools found with him (P. Hunt, personal communication, April 11, 2012).

What was involved in the process of removing the mummies from the locations they were found in?

As might be expected in the extreme conditions in which both mummies were found, removing the remains involved a number of difficulties. Rienhard (2005) describes some of the problems of reaching the summit where the Ice Maiden was found, including not only treacherous footing and lack of supplies but also the risk of problems such as acute mountain sickness, which can include headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and nausea among other things (p. 34- 37, 62). The Ice Maiden was backpacked down the mountain after she had been located. One of the most pressing concerns of her removal was preservation; luckily, the majority of the body was still surrounded by ice, aiding preservation (Maugh II, 1996). Using the ice and insulated sleeping pads they had with them to try and protect her from changing temperatures and the rigors of travel, Reinhard and Zarate were able to successfully bring her from the summit (Reinhard, 2005, p. 30- 31).

Those involved in the removal of the Ice Man did not face the same physical difficulties in reaching the remains, and after the hikers had made the discovery, the Austrian police and the coroner were called in, arriving by helicopter. However, unlike with the Ice Maiden, those involved with the discovery were not able to recognize the true significance, believing the Ice Man to be a modern homicide victim. Because of this, those removing him were not concerned with the preservation of his clothing or artifacts, and may have even used glacial icepicks to free him from the ice; later scientists and archaeologists returned to the site later on and recovered more artifacts, but some of his clothing was partially destroyed in his removal and the process of removal contributed to the destruction or loss of various artifacts associated with him. There was damage done to the body itself, including when they tried to force his body into a coffin (P. Hunt, personal communication, April 11, 2012).

What gains have been made by these discoveries, despite their problematic contexts?

Despite the difficulties associated with the high altitude, frozen remains of the Ice Maiden and the Ice Man, these discoveries can provide extremely valuable information. The ice that froze Juanita preserved her skin, internal organs, hair, and blood, setting her apart from other high-altitude Inca mummies desiccated by the environmental conditions (Clark, 1998). Similarly, the Ice Man provides a complete assemblage of tools and significant information from uniquely preserved organic information. Typically, finds of human remains as old as the Ice Man include a skeleton and a few stone tools or other artifacts and so the Ice Man’s preservation in ice gives scientists a significant and unique wealth of information (P. Hunt, personal communication, April 12, 2012).

One example of the information gathered from these unique discoveries is the ability to look at the diet through analysis of the stomach contents of the two mummies. Analysis of the Ice Maiden, for example, shows she was well fed and that there were only vegetable products present (World of Forensic Science, 2005). This shows that she had a meal of vegetables within six to eight hours before her death (Reinhard, 2005, p. 159). This sort of analysis raises new questions (such as why the meal consisted of vegetables and why it was eaten so shortly before her death) that may give further insight into elements of the ritual of Capacocha. Analysis of the Ice Man revealed that he had eaten a sort of wild goat jerky, as well as showed his use of birch tree bracket fungus as a medicine. Very interestingly, analysis of pollen in his food and body has been used to trace his journey in the days before his death, including movement up and down the mountain before once more ascending to the place of his death (P. Hunt, personal communication, April 11, 2012). The kind of analysis enabled by the preservation of both mummies under ice and snow, which preserved organic information including stomach contents, has permitted a greater understanding of the lives of these individuals, especially leading up to their deaths.

To learn more:

To learn more about the Ice Man, you can watch the NOVA documentary Iceman Murder Mystery at 

Works Cited

Clark, L. (1998). Ice mummies of the Inca. Retrieved February 7, 2012, from 
Iceman Murder Mystery. (2011). NOVA. Retrieved April 11, 2012 from 
Maugh II, T.H. (1996, May 23). Frozen asset. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 11, 2012 from 
"Peruvian Ice Maiden." World of Forensic Science. 2005. Retrieved April 10, 2012 from 
Reinhard, J. (2005). The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the 
     Andes.Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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