Karolinska Institutet

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A Mummy’s Diet

Two weeks ago I was on a visit to Bolzano in northern Italy. I was visiting as an expert on a scientific council to evaluate the research at the EURAC Institute for Mummy Research. In Bolzano is a museum which is home to the 5300-year-old iceman, Ötzi. Eight years ago he was thawed for just a few hours and I alongside other researchers were able to examine Ötzi.

Researchers from many different fields of research took a variety of samples from the stomach and intestines, among several other things. We have since collaborated with research colleagues in Italy, the United States, Germany and Austria to study the stomach contents of Ötzi and with new technologies, mapped residuals of proteins, fat and genetic material. We came to the conclusion that Ötzi was an omnivore who was well equipped for his hiking in the Alps for that time. He needed a lot of energy, and his diet contained a lot of fat that could be likened to today’s LCHF diet i.e., high fat and low carbohydrates. His last meal before he died consisted of red meat (mountain goat and deer), grains and some spices. He also cooked the food in a way that is similar to the smoking of meat.

In a few weeks, a state-of-the-art laboratory will be opened at EURAC to study mummies from different parts of the world. An important part is to ensure that the sample you are analyzing truly comes from the mummy itself and not from the environment. For example, in the study of intestinal flora, one must be very careful in the preparation of the sample so that no bacteria in the environment pollute the sample.

The new laboratory in Bolzano has specially designed premises to ensure this. In collaboration with us at the Center for Translational Microbiology, researchers at EURAC are working to map the intestinal flora of Ötzi with new impressive DNA technologies. The intention is to compare his intestinal flora with the intestinal flora of people today. We will also collaborate to study the stomach content and hence the diet of other well-preserved mummies from different parts of the world. There are mummies in Mexico, Peru, Switzerland, Egypt and China that are so well-preserved that the intestinal flora and perhaps dietary remnants can be mapped in the same way as Ötzi.

We hope to find out more about how people lived thousands of years ago. In addition, we can deepen our understanding of how intestinal flora looked with the diets of previous times . Who knows – we may have a Bronze Age diet on the Christmas table next year.

Lars Engstrand is a doctor and professor at the Karolinska Institute and heads the department at the Center for Translational Microbiology Research. He has studied microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract for over 30 years and was one of the pioneers to study intestinal flora with new DNA techniques.



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