On Ice! Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past by James M. Deem
It seems that the earth's vanishing glaciers, having given mankind great rivers, awe-inspiring vistas, and a respect for nature's power and force, have a parting gift for us as they retreat worldwide--glimpses into human history from the mummified remains they have preserved.
James M. Deem's Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) begins with the story of Erika and Helmut Simon, devoted mountain hikers, who in 1991 spotted an unusual object in the melting Alpine snow on the Italian-Austrian border.
...they noticed something unexpected in the slushy ice of a rocky gully. At first Helmut thought it was trash left behind by a careless hiker. But as they approached, his wife realized what they had stumbled upon.
"It's a person," she said.
They stopped a few feet away.
In front of them a body lay face-down in a patch of melting ice.... The rest of the corpse was encased in what was left of the glacial ice.
Drawing closer, they found what they recognized to be the well-preserved body of a man, skin, eyes, and teeth intact, protruding from the slush. Their discovery proved to be, not as first thought, a recent victim of the harsh terrain on the slopes of Finail and Similaun Mountains--the body was indeed that of a man who had died 5,300 years ago, a body which had been surprisingly preserved by the confluence of conditions of weather and terrain around the spot where he died.
Nicknamed Otzi (pronounced Ootzie), the mummy and surrounding artifacts yielded much information about human life in the Copper Age. Otzi had carried an ax, still functional, made from a yew branch with a copper blade, a long bow, a knapsack framed with wood, had worn complexly fashioned clothing and shoes, and displayed 59 tattoos all over his body, proving that "body art" is nothing new to our kind. Murder, it seems, is also nothing novel: DNA analysis, forensic examination, and samples of blood found on his clothing shows him to have been a local, the victim of some sort of violent struggle with four other humans, who mortally wounded him with an arrow, broke his ribs, left defensive wounds on the bones of his hands and forearms, and finally struck a blow to his head which ended his life, in a pre-historic Mafia-style killing. Otzi's body, now preserved in a man-made igloo at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, continues to yield invaluable information about the diet, lifestyle, and health of humans living in Europe long before the pyramids were built.
Deems goes on to describe other human remains revealed by the withdrawal of glaciers, including the "Ice Maidens" and the "The Prince of El Plomo," children chosen for sacrifice by the Incas over 500 years ago in the Andes Mountains, the mummy named Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi by the local Indians, found in British Columbia and thought to have been encased in the glacier for hundreds of years, and the preserved body of Mt. Everest climber George Mallory, presumably killed and buried in ice after a fall in 1924.
The author ties all of these fascinating finds together with the one thing all of these disparate humans came to have in common--the fact that their remains have been revealed by the retreat of Earth's great glaciers. Because of rapid climate change, from whatever cause, Deems predicts that the most of the glaciers of North, Central, and South America, Africa, and Europe's Alps will be gone within this century. This loss is more than one of scenic views, he points out, since many vital rivers and underground aquifers, including, for example, the sacred Ganges River, fed by the Himalayan ice, will also vanish with them.
But for forensic anthropologists, the death of the glaciers is also a window into life on earth in earlier times, and as the ice melts, we may learn much more about those who have shared life on this planet with us. Deems' appendix includes glaciers to visit (while they're still there), suggested web sites on glaciers and the "icemen" found there (for example, find out more about Otzi here), an extensive bibliography, and an index.
James M. Deem is also the author of Bodies from the Bog, and Bodies From the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii, which also earned starred reviews for the highly readible text and arresting photographs which make archaeology come alive for middle readers. For further facts on fascinating frozen finds, see Owen Beattie's account of the permafrost-preserved lost seekers of the Northwest Passage, Buried In Ice: A Time Quest Book, and Richard Stone's Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant.