The 5,300-year-old Otzi the Iceman's last meal was remarkably heavy on fat, according to the first in-depth analysis of the Iceman's stomach contents which offers a rare glimpse of our ancestor's ancient dietary habits.
The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, offer important insights into the nutritional habits of European individuals, going back more than 5,000 years to the Copper Age.
They also offer clues as to how our ancient ancestors handled food preparation.
"By using a complementary multi-omics approach combined with microscopy, we reconstructed the Iceman's last meal, showing that he has had a remarkably high proportion of fat in his diet, supplemented with wild meat from ibex and red deer, cereals from einkorn, and with traces of toxic bracken," said Frank Maixner from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, Italy.
The researchers said that the analysis had not happened earlier because scientists were initially unable to identify the Iceman's stomach because it had moved up during the mummification process.
In 2009, his stomach was spotted during a re-investigation of CT scans, and an effort to analyse its contents was launched.
"The stomach material was, compared to previously analysed lower intestine samples, extraordinarily well preserved, and it also contained large amounts of unique biomolecules such as lipids, which opened new methodological opportunities to address our questions about Otzi's diet," Maixner said.
The researchers combined classical microscopic and modern molecular approaches to determine the exact composition of the Iceman's diet prior to his death.
The broad-spectrum approach allowed them to make inferences based on ancient DNA, proteins, metabolites, and lipids.
The analysis identified ibex adipose tissue as the most likely fat source. In fact, about half of the stomach contents were composed of adipose fat.
While the high-fat diet was unexpected, the researchers say it "totally makes sense" given the extreme alpine environment in which the Iceman lived and where he was found.
"The high and cold environment is particularly challenging for the human physiology and requires optimal nutrient supply to avoid rapid starvation and energy loss," said Albert Zink, also from the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies.
"The Iceman seemed to have been fully aware that fat represents an excellent energy source," said Zink.
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