Today, Ötzi's death. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Ötzi slumps against the
rock, exhausted, the cold starting to blunt his
pain. He's ten thousand feet up, in what you and I
call the Ötztaler Alps. He and his friend had
been hunting in the mountains, when some very
unfriendly folk showed up.
There was a nasty fight. Ötzi brought down two
of them with his bow and arrows. He finished one
off with his knife. They killed his friend; and
Ötzi himself is badly cut up on his hands and
torso. Worse yet, he caught an arrow in his
shoulder. His friend pulled it out, but the point
came loose. It's still in there.
Now he hunkers down, deciding what to
do next. He still has his gear -- including his
favorite axe with its copper head. He's far from
his home in the valley below, and a storm is
gathering. He'll have to wait it out. It's
dangerous to stop moving, so he tries to stay
focused -- thinks about his village -- the fertile
fields, air heavy with smells of cow manure and
He dreams of the warm roar of the charcoal fire
where he melted copper for the tools he makes.
Breathe; think -- stay alive. But he relaxes. The
pain ebbs. His mind drifts. He dies. Then the ice
storm hits and he's soon frozen into solid ice.
Fifty-three hundred years later two hikers come by
that very same spot. It's the warmest summer on
record, and there's Ötzi, finally exposed by
the melting ice. You and I suddenly have an amazing
window into late Stone Age life in Southern Europe.
How do we know all we know about Ötzi? Well,
I've taken far less liberty in my telling about him
than you might think. Forensic studies tell us that
one of his arrowheads carried blood from two other
humans, and we find another person's blood on his
knife and his cloak. We know that he'd recently
eaten ibex, deer, and grain, and that his home was
near present-day Bolzano, Italy. Since his hair
carries traces of arsenic, a by-product of copper
smelting, we're pretty sure he did his own
Ötzi turns our notions about chronology upon
their ear. He lived eight hundred years before the
Great Pyramid. We used to think that metal hadn't
found its way into Europe until much later. And
Ötzi was not just hammering out lumps of
alluvial copper. He was melting the stuff down and
casting it into useful forms.
His equipment reflects a remarkable knowledge of
materials. He used eighteen or so varieties of wood
and shrubbery to make just the clothing and tools
that he carried on his person. Ötzi and his
people were very skilled technologists.
Of course a wise person once said that any good
scientific answer generates two new scientific
questions. So we struggle to see more from the
window Ötzi has opened upon the fourth
What were the mysterious tattoos covering his body?
What was the division of labor in his village, and
how did he fit into it? Would I have enjoyed his
company? And, as an engineer, how much would I have
learned talking with him -- and watching him at
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
At this writing (January 26, 2004), the story of
Ötzi is unfolding on the Internet. See, e.g.:
Script of the Nova program on Ötzi
All images are from H. R. Hall, The Threshold of
History, ca. 1900 (undated). The
illustrators, Nancy Smith and Hilda Booth, have
caught Ötzi's world of 5300 years ago
surprisingly well, although the book was about
Europe's later Bronze Age.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.