Analysis of Bacterial DNA in Skin and Muscle of the Tyrolean Iceman Offers New Insight Into the Mummification Process

Analysis of Bacterial DNA in Skin and Muscle of the Tyrolean Iceman Offers New Insight Into the Mummification Process

Analysis of Bacterial DNA in Skin and Muscle of the Tyrolean Iceman Offers New Insight Into the Mummification Process

Abstract

About 80 sequences (16s ribosomal RNA gene) of bacterial DNA in samples of skin and muscle taken directly from the Tyrolean iceman (3350-3100 years B.C.) or recovered during the 1992 archaeological expedition at the Alpine site were analyzed to obtain clues to the natural mummification process that allowed the corpse of the Neolithic shepherd/hunter to be preserved for more than 5,000 years. The investigation was made more complex by the fact that the surface of the mummy had been swabbed with phenol soon after the discovery (September 19, 1991). Our results show that no trace of microbial DNA is left on the actual surface of the body, while the untreated skin still bears the remains of large numbers of bacteria belonging to the genera Sphingomonas, Afipia, Curtobacterium, Microbacterium, Agromyces, and others. Compared to the untreated skin, the iceman’s muscle is also very rich in bacterial DNA. However, this DNA comes, with few exceptions, from the species Clostridium algidicarnis. The sharp difference in the bacterial DNA composition of skin and muscle suggests that the remains of the original cadaveric microflora of the latter have not disappeared during the iceman’s taphonomic history. On the other hand, the massive presence of C. algidicarnis, a cold-adapted sporigenous, the DNA of which was previously (Ubaldi et al. [1998] Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 107:285-295) found in the soft tissue of a naturally desiccated Andean mummy, indicates that the hypothesis that the iceman’s corpse underwent rapid dehydration by the effect of a warm wind (föhn) is no longer plausible. The results best fit with the hypothesis (Bereuter et al. [1997] Chem. Eur. J. 7:1032-1038) that the body was first covered by snow and ice, and then underwent thawing and, finally, desiccation.

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