Still eerily recognisable as they were in life, here are 10 of the best preserved bodies of the last 5,000 years.
1. 92 years ago – Rosalia Lombardo
Rosalia Lombardo was an Italian child born in 1918 in Palermo, Sicily. She died of pneumonia on 6 December 1920. Her father was so grief-stricken that he had her body embalmed to preserve her. Rosalia’s body was one of the last corpses to be admitted to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo in Sicily, where it is kept in a small chapel encased in a glass covered coffin.
2. 500 years ago – La Doncella Inca Maiden
La Doncella was found in 1999 in an icy pit at the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a volcano in north-west Argentina on the border with Chile. She was aged 15 when she was sacrificed to the Inca gods, along with a younger boy and girl. DNA tests revealed that they were unrelated, and CT scans showed that they were well nourished and had no broken bones or other injuries, although La Doncella had sinusitis and a lung infection. Before being chosen as sacrificial victims, the children spent much of their lives eating a typical peasant diet composed primarily of vegetables, such as potatoes. Their diet then changed markedly in the 12 months up to their deaths when they started to receive maize, a luxury food, and dried llama meat. A further change in their lifestyle about 3-4 months before they died, suggests that is when they began their pilgrimage to the volcano, probably from the Inca capital, Cuzco. They were taken to the summit of Llullaillaco, drugged with maize beer and coca leaves, and, once asleep, placed in underground niches. La Doncella was found sitting cross-legged in her brown dress and striped sandals, with bits of coca leaf still clinging to her upper lip, and a crease in one cheek where it leaned against her shawl as she slept. At such a high altitude, it would not have taken long for her to die from exposure.
3. 537 years ago – Inuit baby
The Inuit baby was part of a group of 8 mummies (6 women and 2 children) found in 1972 at a gravesite near the former coastal settlement of Qllakitsoq, a desolate area of Greenland. The graves were dated to 1475 AD. One of the women had a malignant tumour near the base of her skull which most likely caused her death. The Inuit baby, a boy aged about 6 months old, appeared to have been buried alive with her. Inuit custom at that time dictated that the child be buried alive or suffocated by its father if a woman could not be found to nurse it. The Inuit believed that the child and its mother would travel to the land of the dead together.
4. 2,190 years ago – Xin Zhui
Xin Zhui was the wife of the Marquis of Han and died near the city of Changsha in China around 178 BC, when she was around 50 years old. She was found in 1971 in an enormous Han Dynasty-era tomb more than 50 feet below the earth containing over 1,000 well-preserved artefacts. She was tightly wrapped in 22 dresses of silk and hemp and 9 silk ribbons, and was buried in 4 coffins, each inside the other. Her body was so well preserved that it was autopsied as if recently dead. Her skin was supple; her limbs could be manipulated; her hair and internal organs were intact; the remains of her last meal were found in her stomach; and type A blood still ran red in her veins. Examinations have revealed that she suffered from parasites, lower back pain, clogged arteries, had a massively damaged heart (an indication of heart disease brought on by obesity) and was overweight at the time of her death.
5. 2,200 years ago – Grauballe Man
The Grauballe Man lived during the late 3rd century BC on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. His body was discovered in 1952 in a peat bog near to the village of Grauballe. He was around 30 years old, 5 ft 9 in tall, and entirely naked when he died. He had dark hair, altered by the bog to a reddish colour, and stubble on his chin. His hands were smooth and did not show evidence of hard labour such as farming. His teeth and jaws indicated that he had suffered periods of starvation, or poor health during his early childhood. He also suffered arthritis in his spine. His last meal, eaten right before his death, consisted of a porridge or gruel made from corn, seeds from over 60 different herbs, and grasses, with traces of the poisonous fungi, ergot. The ergot in his system would have induced painful symptoms, such as convulsions and a burning sensation in the mouth, hands, and feet; it may also have induce hallucinations or even a coma. He was killed by having his neck cut open, ear to ear, severing his trachea and oesophagus, in either a public execution, or as a human sacrifice connected to Iron Age Germanic paganism.
6. 2,300 years ago – Tollund Man
Like the Grauballe Man, the Tollund Man lived during the 4th century BC on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark. He was found in 1950, buried in a peat bog. At time of death he was around 40 years old and 5 ft 3 in tall. His body was in a foetal position. He wore a pointed skin cap made of sheepskin and wool, fastened under his chin, and a smooth hide belt around his waist. A noose made of plaited animal hide was drawn tight around the neck, and trailing down his back. Other than these, his body was naked. His hair was cropped short and there was short stubble on his chin and upper lip, suggesting that he had not shaved on the day of his death. His last meal had been a kind of porridge made from vegetables and seeds, and he lived for 12 to 24 hours after eating it. He died by hanging rather than strangulation.
7. 3,000 years ago – Ur-David
Ur-David is part of a group of mummies, discovered at the start of the 20th century in the Tarim Basinin in present-day Xinjiang, China, which date from 1900 BC to 200 AD. Ur-David was tall, red-haired, basically of a European appearance and a likely speaker of an Indo-European language. Y-DNA analysis showed that he was Haplogroup R1a, characteristic of western Eurasia. He was wearing a red twill tunic and tartan leggings when he died around 1,000 BC, probably at the same time as his 1-year-old baby son.
8. 3,000 years ago – Tocharian female
Like Ur-David, this Tocharian female is a Tarim mummy and lived around 1,000 BC. She was tall, with a high nose and long flaxen blond hair, perfectly preserved in ponytails. The weave of her clothing appears similar to Celtic cloth. She was around 40 years-old when she died.
9. 3,335 years ago – Tutankhamen
Tutankhamen was an Egyptian pharaoh who lived approximately 1341 BC – 1323 BC. The 1922 discovery of his nearly intact tomb received worldwide press coverage. He was slight of build and roughly 5 ft 11 in tall at the time of his death aged 19. DNA tests showed that Tutankhamen was the result of an incestuous relationship; his father was Akhenaten and his mother was one of Akhenaten’s 5 sisters. CT images discovered congenital flaws common among the children of incest. He had large front incisors and the overbite that was characteristic of his royal line. He also had an elongated skull, a slightly cleft palate, and possibly a mildly curved spine. He was buried with 2 mummified foetuses who were probably his 2 stillborn children with wife (and half-sister) Ankhesenamun. The exact cause of Tutankhamen’s early death is unknown; as well several genetic defects caused by inbreeding, he was infected with the most severe strain of malaria several times in his short life, and possibly suffered from a crippling bone disease. A CT scan showed that he had badly broken his leg shortly before his death, and that the leg had become infected.
10. 5,300 years ago – Ötzi the Iceman
Ötzi the Iceman lived about 3,300 BC and was found in 1991, frozen in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy. He is Europe’s oldest natural human mummy and has been extensively examined by scientists. At the time of his death Ötzi was approximately 5 ft 5 in tall, weighed about 110 lb and was about 45 years of age. Analysis of pollen, dust grains and the isotopic composition of his teeth indicates that he spent his childhood near the present village of Feldthurns, in northern Italy, but later went to live in valleys about 30 miles further north. The sequencing Ötzi’s full genome shows he is most closely related to southern Europeans, particularly geographically isolated populations of Sardinia and Corsica. He also has a higher degree of Neanderthal ancestry than modern Europeans
Analysis of Ötzi’s intestines showed 2 full meals (the last one consumed about 8 hours before his death), one of chamois meat, the other of red deer and herb bread. Both were eaten with grain as well as roots and fruits (probably sloes – small plumlike fruits of the blackthorn tree). Pollens in the first meal showed that it had been consumed in a conifer forest and indicated that events leading to Ötzi’s death occurred in the spring. Further analysis of his stomach contents revealed the partly digested remains of ibex meat, eaten less than two hours before his death.
Ötzi’s lifestyle included long walks over hilly terrain (with a degree of mobility not common in Copper Age Europe), indicating that he may have been a high-altitude shepherd. His lungs were blackened, probably from breathing the smoke of campfires. He was probably old for his 45 years and suffered from a number of ailments, including whipworm (an intestinal parasite), dental cavities, and wear and tear on his back, his knee and his ankle joints. DNA analysis also showed him to be the earliest known human with Lyme disease. One of his fingernails indicates that he was sick 3 times in the 6 months before he died; the last bout, 2 months before he died, lasting about 2 weeks. Ötzi had several carbon tattoos including groups of short, parallel, vertical lines on his back, a cruciform mark behind his right knee, and various marks around both ankles. The tattoos may have been related to pain relief treatments.
Ötzi’s clothes were sophisticated. He wore a cloak made of woven grass, and a coat, belt, leggings, loincloth and shoes, all made of leather of different skins. He also wore a bearskin cap with a leather chin strap. His bearskin and deer hide shoes were waterproof and designed for walking across the snow. Soft grass inside the shoe functioned like modern socks. His belt had a pouch sewn to it that contained useful flint and bone tools. He was also in possession of a copper axe, a flint-bladed knife, a longbow and a quiver of arrows, 2 birch bark baskets, a firestarting kit, as well as berries and mushrooms for medicinal purposes.
Ötzi died a violent death. He had an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder, though the arrow’s shaft had been removed before death. He also had bruises and cuts to the hands, wrists and chest, and a blow to the head which probably caused his death. One of the cuts to the base of his thumb reached down to the bone. DNA analysis apparently revealed traces of blood from 4 other people on Ötzi’s gear: one on his knife, two from the same arrowhead, and a fourth from his coat. Ötzi may have killed 2 people with the same arrow, retrieving it on both occasions, and the blood on his coat may be from a wounded comrade he carried over his back, suggesting that he was part of a group that was out of his home territory – perhaps an armed raiding party involved in a skirmish with a neighbouring tribe. Whatever the sequence of events, this skirmish went badly wrong for Ötzi.