“The art of medicine is to cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”

~ Ambroise Pare, c, 16th Century.

#1 The story of Otzi and the curious case of tattoos.

Otzi (or Iceman Otzi as he is more popularly known today) lived sometimes around 5300 years back. And died at the ripe old age of 45 years. Old because those were times when a human expected to live no more than 40 years.

Of all human bodies studied for revealing the wonders of medical science, that of Iceman Otzi is perhaps most noted. Frozen. Male. Mummified. His body was discovered in 1991 in the European Alps, somewhere close to the border of Austria and Italy.

Otzi was of average height 5 feet 3 inches and weight close to 60 kgs.

Otzi was a man of means. In sophisticated leather garments and shoes. Covered by a grass cloak woven neatly. He also possessed equipment for defense. From wild animals and foes perhaps. Ax, bow, arrows. And from spirits and nature. For ailments. An emergency medical kit. Lumps of a thumb-sized birch bracket fungus (Piptoporus betulinus). The lumps were precious possessions. For they had holes through which they could be sutured to his clothing.

But why this plant? For even though he was a man of means, he too suffered from ailments. Birch bracket fungus is a laxative. A remedy for constipation. On eating, diarrhea. But the plant has other remedies too. Antibiotic action. And substances that killed intestinal worms. Particularly whipworms. And on examination of Otzi’s body. Indeed, his large intestine contained worm eggs.

However, what intrigued modern day investigators were the large number of tattoos on Otzi’s body. More than 50 of them scattered over his body. Left wrist. Left calf. Right knee. Ankles. Right foot. Both sides of lower backbone. These tattoos were arranged in parallel lines. Modern day investigators believe they were incisions. Incisions for cure of some disease and not decoration. For they were hidden from public view by layers of clothing. And into the (ugly) incisions, charcoal rubbed. For purposes unknown. Antiseptic? Perhaps that is what medical healers of those days thought.

Otzi also suffered from degenerative bone diseases. As revealed by X-Ray and CT scans. The tattoos, some were positioned over painful areas. Symbolic therapy of relief? Who knows? Or perhaps acupuncture or acupressure therapy. For many of the tattoos do correspond to the lines of acupuncture (channels or meridians) as is known in Chinese medicine.

Otzi is still under investigation. And one day perhaps he will reveal the full breadth of prehistoric medicine in all its modernity.

Reference: A Short History of Medicine by Steve Parker; Museum of Archaeology, South Tyrol; The Archaeology magazine.


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