Ötzi the Iceman was probably bald with dark skin – not too dissimilar to his present desiccated state, scientists have concluded.
The natural mummy, which dates from 5,300 years ago, was found in the Otztal Alps at the border of Austria and Italy and is Europe’s oldest mummified human.
The current reconstruction in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology suggests that Ötzi had light eyes, a shaggy head of hair, a beard and the lightish skin of an Alpine climate.
But new genetic analysis suggests he had a genetic predisposition for male pattern baldness, with dark eyes and dark skin.
“It was previously thought that the mummy’s skin had darkened during its preservation in the ice, but presumably what we see now is actually largely Ötzi’s original skin colour,” said anthropologist Albert Zink, study co-author and head of the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano.
“It’s the darkest skin tone that has been recorded in contemporary European individuals.”
Prof Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, added: “The genome analysis revealed phenotypic traits such as high skin pigmentation, dark eye colour, and male pattern baldness that are in stark contrast to the previous reconstructions that show a light-skinned, light-eyed, and quite hairy male.
“The mummy itself, however, is dark and has no hair. It is remarkable how the reconstruction is biassed by our own preconception of a stone age human from Europe.”
Ötzi died after being shot in the back with an arrow by an unknown assailant in one of the world’s oldest murder mysteries. His body was frozen forever in the snow and ice of the mountains.
The new analysis also changes Ötzi ancestry. Genetic profiling in 2012 suggested he had descended from a mix of native hunter-gatherers, migrating farmers from Anatolia – modern-day Turkey – and Steppe herders from Eastern Europe.
But the new results find no link to the Steppe herders with scientists discovering that modern DNA had accidentally become mixed up with the original samples. There is also very little hunter-gatherer DNA, suggesting his lineage is from Middle Eastern farmers.
The research team concluded that Ötzi came from a relatively isolated Alpine farming population that had very little contact with other European groups.
As well as a predisposition to baldness, his genes also suggest he was at increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, although such genetic traits may have been helpful for storing fat in prehistoric times when food was more scarce.
Elisabeth Vallazza, director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, said despite the new evidence the museum had no plans to change the reconstruction.
“The famous figure in the museum is an attempt at interpretation, a suggestion of how we imagined the Iceman during his lifetime,” she added.
“The figure was created in 2011 by the palaeo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis based on research that had been conducted at the time. The main purpose was to show that Ötzi was a modern human.
“Middle-aged, tattooed, wiry, weathered, a person like you and me. There are currently no plans to revise the reconstruction.”
The new study was published in the journal Cell Genomics.