The Similaun

At 3:30 on the afternoon of September 19, 1991, two German mountaineers hiking the edge of the Similaun glacier in Italy's Val Senales, near the Austrian border, spotted the mummified remains of a human body protruding from the ice. The men who arrived to rescue him thought they were dealing with a lost fellow hiker, or at most a soldier killed during World War I.

They were off by 5000 years. It turned out indeed to be the body of a man who had lived between 3350 and 3100 BC. The story of the Similaun Man and his discovery is still fraught with problems. First there was the problem of establishing whether the body had been found in Italy or Austria, an argument that the Italians eventually won by a matter of a few dozen meters (the mummy is presently conserved at the Bolzano Archaeological Museum). Then came the customary exercise in absolute foolishness as archaeologists veritably elbowed one another to come up with the most patronizing and ridiculous conjectures to explain the man's death: a shepherd who ventured too far and froze to death; a hunter lost in a blizzard; a shaman who climbed the glacier to die in communion with nature.

Not long ago, more in-depth analysis of the mummy demonstrated that the real cause of the Similaun Man's death was a wound inflicted by an arrow. He did not die, therefore, of natural causes, or because he got lost. Nor was he a hunter-gatherer, shepherd, or shaman. He was a warrior, and apparently an active one insofar as traces of the blood of at least four different individuals were found on various parts of his gear.

What interests us here is that the discovery allows us to learn about a contemporary of the megalithic builders, the famous "howling barbarians,''

quite literally frozen in a moment of everyday existence, his clothing and equipment completely intact.

The Similaun Man was dressed expertly against the cold. He was wearing the following garments:

1. A cloak of woven grass

2. A bearskin cap with chin straps

3. An overgarment in goatskin sewn with thread made from animal tendons

4. A wide loincloth, also in goatskin

5. Goatskin trousers with footstraps in deerskin

6. Shoes with leather soles and uppers covered in netting that could be stuffed with hay for extra insulation

At his waist he wore a sort of calfskin haversack with laces that contained a few objects made of flint and bone as well as some dried mushrooms, which probably served as an antibiotic (the man had a number of tattoos on his skin, which were also perhaps made for therapeutic reasons). His hunting or, rather, combat gear consisted of the following:

1. An ax made of nearly pure copper (99.7% copper, 0.22% arsenic, and 0.08% silver), the yew wood handle of which is still attached. The blade is fastened to a fork in the handle with birch tar and then wrapped tightly with strips of hide. This is the only integral prehistoric ax that has come down to us, and seeing it up close gives one the strange impression that it was used just yesterday.

2. A longbow of 1.82 meters, also in yew wood, on which the Similaun Man was still working when he died. The quiver, made of chamois and stiffened by hazelnut rods, held two finished arrows with flint points and triple fletching (meaning the familiar three stabilizing "fins" we still use today). There were an additional 12 arrows still to be finished, each about 84 centimeters long, with a number of arrowheads carved from deerhorn. Though there was no bowstring on the bow itself, the rope made of raffia (i.e., cane fiber) found in the quiver was probably intended for that purpose.

3. A dagger about 13 centimeters long, with a triangular flint blade and a scabbard of raffia.

He was also carrying two birch bark containers and a woven grass net, probably for catching birds. Additionally, he was equipped with a curious deerhorn tool resembling a jeweler's hammer that was perhaps used to sharpen flint. Archaeologists called the tool a "retoucher," although and not surprisingly it is the only example of a "retoucher" as yet known to science.

In 2004, using digital imaging, the facial features of the Similaun Man were inferentially reconstructed, resulting in a visage remarkably similar to that of a world-famous (recently dead) Italian opera singer, to such an alarming degree that I suspect that this was somehow intentional. At the very least we should remind ourselves that a computer cannot do anything without a program that tells it what to do; thus, so-called computer reconstructions depend on the programs that generate them, which in turn depend on what the programmer was thinking when he wrote the code. So these virtual portrait reconstructions are only sometimes plausible and never absolute, a fact that often goes unmentioned.

Debatable recent reconstructions aside, I am sure that the Similaun Man would not be at all pleased with the way we habitually imagine primitive stone-age man. We need only note that the clothing and equipment of a single individual encompassed the hides of five different animals (deer, chamois, bear, calf, goat) as well as wood and fiber from 18 trees and plants, none of them used haphazardly but chosen so that their properties best suited the resulting object's function. Actually, although there's absolutely nothing objectively anachronistic about him (for example, he comes from the Copper Age and is not carrying a bronze sword), in a certain sense there is something in the man himself, in his perfect coherency, that seems anachronistic. The reason? Creeping evolution.

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