By Jano Tantongco
What started as a 5,300-year-old murder mystery has led to a pristinely preserved mummy, the replica of which is now showcased at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory DNA Learning Center.
The exhibit features the first-ever, three-dimensional replica of the mummy known as Otzi, who was first discovered by two hikers in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, a mountain range on the border of Austria and Italy. Scientists determined that the Neolithic man was killed by an arrow strike, then quickly frozen and preserved.
The DNA Center exhibit highlights how Otzi serves as a marker of history and a window into the Neolithic period, helping illuminate our evolutionary origins.
“We tell you how he relates to other humans and other pre-humans and other things that aren’t quite human yet and how he relates to the scheme of things,” Elna Carrasco, a genetic educator at the center said.
After conceiving of the idea to create a “murder mystery” type exhibit, Carrasco reached out to the renowned artist to attempt to create the replica to feature at the DNA Center. Striking a deal with the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, Staab used CT scans to input into a large 3D printer, then using photographs to help him finish the model.
Carrasco said the hikers saw what looked to them like a paper bag on the mountain. However, upon closer inspection, they determined that it was in fact, a mummified head.
Stormy conditions prevented anyone else from getting to the site, so the hikers attempted to excavate Otzi themselves. In their efforts, one of them accidentally jackhammered off a chunk of the mummy’s hip.
“I’m sure he felt terrible about that later. However, that one little mistake allowed scientists to have this really big window to get certain samples… it gave us an opportunity that we didn’t have before without disturbing any other part of his body,” Carrasco said.
She added that since then, thousands of tests have been performed on the body, yielding invaluable discoveries for science.
Among these findings include the determination that arteriosclerosis, clogging of arteries caused by fatty plaques, was not a modern phenomena as once thought.
“We had no idea it went back that far. We thought it was more diet-oriented, but his diet was very light compared to anything that we have today,” Carrasco said, looking to Otzi’s brush with the disease. “Now, we see there’s a genetic component involved.”
The exhibit can be viewed at the DNA Center at 334 Main St. in Cold Spring Harbor, which is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Guided tours will be hosted each Monday at 10 a.m. through Aug. 28. For more information, visit Museum.dnalc.org/otzi.