The Iceman Baldeth: New Genome Analysis Shows Ötzi Had Surprising Ancestry—and Male-Pattern Baldness

Ötzi probably had some bald ancestors, but they weren’t herders.

Ötzi on ice.
Ötzi on ice. / (Ötzi) © South Tyrol Museum ofArchaeology/Eurac/MarcoSamadelli-Gregor Staschitz; (Background) sbayram/E+/Getty Images

Ötzi the Iceman may have had more in common with many of today’s middle-aged men than we realized. New research suggests that the Alps’ most famous ancient human experienced male-pattern baldness.

In 1991, hikers discovered the mummified remains of the man we now call Ötzi near the Italian-Austrian border of the Ötzal Alps (hence the name). Scientists have learned an extraordinary amount of detail about him since then. He’s believed to have lived around 5300 years ago and died violently—shot in the back with an arrow—in his forties. He rocked a sheepskin loincloth, a bearskin hat, and dozens of tattoos. He stood around 5 feet, 2 inches, and suffered from intestinal parasites. (He’s also supposedly cursed.)

All the forensic analysis enabled researchers to reconstruct what Ötzi might have looked like, and a 3D model of him is part of the permanent display at Italy’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. But the model has pale skin and a full head of hair—and according to a recent study in the journal Cell Genomics, the real-life Ötzi may have had neither.

Genome-sequencing technology has come a long way since Ötzi’s genome was first sequenced back in 2012. So an international group of scientists did it again, using DNA from his hip bone and the tissue around it. This time, they identified alleles—variations of a gene—related to male-pattern baldness and a number of other traits, including type 2 diabetes, “obesity-related metabolic disorders,” “reduced freckling,” “reduced hair curliness,” and “black hair color.” 

3D model of Ötzi the Iceman at Italy's South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
The reconstructed Ötzi at Italy's South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. / Mannivu, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

That doesn’t mean Ötzi actually exhibited all these traits in life. But we do have some evidence to support the theory that he did go rather bald: “the fact that almost no human hair was found with the otherwise well-preserved mummy,” the researchers wrote. It’s a similar story with Ötzi’s skin color. The mummy itself has a relatively dark pigmentation, generally thought to have been a side effect of its long stint in ice. But after comparing Ötzi’s alleles to other known skin color–related alleles, the researchers determined that Ötzi’s skin might’ve just been darker than we thought. If so, he was darker-skinned than today’s white Europeans.

His ancestral background is slightly different than theirs, too, which contradicts previous research. Most contemporary Europeans are genetically linked to three groups: Indigenous hunter-gatherers, farmers who arrived from Anatolia roughly 8000 years ago, and herders who began migrating from the Steppe—Eurasia’s expansive grasslands—around 2900 BCE. Older genome sequencing found evidence of all three in Ötzi. But the latest tests were conspicuously devoid of any Steppe connection, and researchers determined that Ötzi’s purported Steppe ancestry was the result of contamination from modern DNA. 

They also learned that Ötzi has lower levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry than most other (known) ancient Europeans, save for one other specimen from just south of the Alps. This suggests that some Alpine communities may have been more isolated from hunter-gatherers than other European populations. That said, two specimens are hardly enough to prove that hypothesis. Here’s hoping that hikers stumble upon Ötzi’s bald comrade next.