On Prehistory and Mobilization
Ötzi and the ambiguities of evidence
In the video above, Jonny Crockett, a media expert on survival skills and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, shows some of the experimental archaeology related to Ötzi, the famous mummy that emerged from alpine ice in 1991. It was only years later, as scientists ran the body through an MRI machine, that they discovered the iceman had been killed by an arrow, with a probable finishing blow to the back of his skull. Cue the music, cut to credits, we have a murder mystery.
As archaeologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Chicago writes in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, the very term “homicide” is often a “terminological disguise” for “armed conflict between social units.” Combined with further forensic evidence, a consensus of experts now believes that Ötzi’s death may have been linked to a larger confrontation between two antagonistic groups within the 48 hours premortem.
A defensive cut on his right hand and abraded knuckles suggest a close fight. Blood from another man found on his garment suggests that he evacuated a wounded comrade from the scene. In plain terms, there appears to have been a battle of uncertain size, and then an enemy killed Ötzi a day or two after that battle. Such a conflict would be larger than two people with a grudge. It would require two peoples with a grudge. War is a social activity; it requires a society on both sides.
As Crockett explains, Ötzi had a number of left-hand twisted lime bast fibers, indicating that other people supported him as a warrior in the field. Similarly, his boots and equipment were well-crafted, as though by experienced hands. He apparently made his own weapons, so perhaps Ötzi made all of these things himself. Nevertheless, it is more likely that his people made most of these things for him, and that many of the people who made them were women.
Note that I do not use the word “soldier,” a concept that Ötzi would not understand, since war was a lifestyle for him rather than a profession. According to cross-cultural surveys of ethnographic and anthropological literature, in a supermajority of “primitive” (i.e. pre-literate, pre-state) societies, all adult males are considered combatants. Like a soldier, Ötzi was a product of the society which made him and all that he had, and in return he was expected to defend his people. Crockett shows us an odd-looking item found with the mummy that has not been identified. Whatever it is, it belonged to his whole people, not just Ötzi alone.
Archaeology is often full of ambiguities; the remains of a village that maintained hunters afield will be indistinguishable from the site of a village that was sending out warriors to fight and die, and in fact they were probably doing both.