Ötzi the Iceman, a stunningly preserved mummy found in the Italian Alps in 1991, has living relatives in the region, new genetic analysis shows.
The study, published in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics, found that the 5,300-year-old mummy has at least 19 male relatives on his paternal side.
"We can say that the Iceman and those 19 must share a common ancestor, who may have lived 10,000 to 12,000 years ago," study co-author Walther Parson, a forensic scientist at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, wrote in an email. "In that sense, those 19 are closer related to the Iceman than other individuals. We usually think about our families when we talk about relatives. However, these data demonstrate that DNA can also be used to trace relatives much further back in time." [Mummy Melodrama: Top 9 Secrets About Ötzi the Iceman]
Ötzi may be the most well-studied Neolithic man ever discovered. He was astonishingly well preserved when he was uncovered in the Ötztal Alps, and since then, scientists have scrutinized his clothes and probed his body. They found the Iceman had tooth decay, ate an agricultural diet and had Lyme disease. The researchers have even determined that Ötzi died in an ambush after being bashed on the head, and then bled to death after a deadly arrow pierced an artery in his shoulder.
But Parson and his colleagues stumbled upon the Iceman mummy's relatives by accident. The team was studying how the geography of the Alps may have affected the genetics of the people in this region of Europe.
As part of the study, scientists analyzed the genetic material from the male (or Y) chromosome, which is passed on only from the father, in about 3,700 men in the region.
The team found that about 19 men shared a genetic lineage, called G-L91, with Ötzi. It's possible that at least one of these men may directly descend from the Iceman, part of an unbroken line of sons going back 5,300 years.
However, "the chances are so extremely low that I would be tempted to say no," Parson said. "There are just too many other possibilities."
That may not be the last word on Ötzi's relatives. Because the team continues to study the region around the Alps, other long-lost relatives to the Iceman may turn up in future research, Parson said.
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Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.