Acupuncture & The Ice Man

Acupuncture & The Ice Man

How Could a Four-Thousand-Year-Old Body Show Signs of Advanced Therapy?

By Patrick Marsolek


In 1991, two tourists were hiking off the path between the mountain passes Hauslabjoch and Tisenjoch in the Otztal Alps on the border of Austria. Walking near the edge of a receding glacier around 10,500 feet in elevation, the tourists discovered a body partially exposed in the ice. When authorities came to retrieve the body, they first assumed it was a modern human, perhaps a recently deceased mountaineer; since some glaciers have been receding, they’ve been revealing other climbers from recent times. Three weeks before, in the same area, the bodies of a man and a woman, missing since 1934, had been discovered.

Yet, when an autopsy was done, coroners found they had the remains of a prehistoric man. To everyone’s surprise and wonder, this naturally preserved mummy, subsequently named “Otzi” or the “Ice Man,” lived around 5,300 years ago. Upon return to the site, researchers found many of the Iceman’s belongings spread around the body’s location. When he died, the Ice Man was carrying a beautiful copper ax, a bow with arrows, a flint knife, three layers of finely stitched deer-fur clothes and a bear-fur hat, lined woven shoes, a belt, a basket, berries, and mushrooms. Almost all other artifacts that archaeologists find from that era are stone, bone, clay, or metal, so finding soft, vegetable remains has been particularly valuable to researchers.

Since 1991, scientific analyses of Otzi’s body, clothing and tools have provided a wealth of information. He was around 5’ 2” tall and weighed approximately 110 pounds at death. His mummified body is now shorter and weighs only 29 pounds. He had brown eyes, was blood type O, and was around 45 years old, which is thought to be quite old for that time period. Though researchers are still not sure what was the cause of his death, he did have a large cut on one hand. An arrowhead was lodged in his shoulder and he had received a blow to his head.

Genetic studies show that he is closely related to modern southern Europeans, though an exact match to any group of people living today has not been found. DNA analysis showed that he was at high risk of atherosclerosis, was lactose intolerant, and had Lyme disease in his system, making him the earliest known human with this disease. His hair contained evidence that he had been around the smelting process, which may partly explain the presence of such a valuable copper ax and suggests he was part of a community. His stomach contained the remnants of his last meal, which was a kind of granola-like cereal made of wheat and meat from a wild goat called an Ibex.

This amazing find has given us a real glimpse into prehistoric life. Perhaps the most significant information discovered about the Ice Man, though, are aspects of his health. This medical information is changing our understanding of the knowledge people possessed during Otzi’s time.

From studying his body, researchers know he was infested with a kind of parasite called ‘whipworm,’ or ‘trichuris trichiura.’ The eggs of this parasite were found in his digestive system. Whipworm causes abdominal pain and anemia. It seems clear that Otzi knew he had intestinal parasites and was treating them with a natural remedy. Among his belongings, researchers found two small lumps of a vegetable material tied to leather thongs, which they first thought was fire starter. However, the anthropologist Luigi Capasso confirmed that the material was actually a birch fungus, which is a laxative and contains oils that also have antibiotic properties and are toxic to parasites. The specificity of this herbal treatment seems to indicate Otzi had an advanced awareness of his health and knew natural ways to treat his illnesses.

X-ray scanning of the Ice Man’s body also revealed that he suffered from arthritis in his hip joints, knees, ankles, and lumbar spine. This information connects to one of the most interesting and provocative finds on the Ice Man’s body, his tattoos. He had 59 body tattoos, mostly comprised of simple crosses or lines. They were arranged in 15 groups—on his left knee, above the kidneys, along the lumbar spine, and on his legs and ankles. Tattoos are known to have been used for many centuries. They have been found on mummies from South America, China, Egypt and Europe. The dark blue tattoos on the Ice Man are thought to have been made with soot from a fireplace, because they contained trace amounts of silicates, almandine, and garnet.

Researchers noticed that many of these tattoos were clustered near the areas where he had arthritis— suggesting they had been placed intentionally as a form of acupuncture to treat his disease. Frank Bahr, president of the German Academy of Acupuncture, first made the tattoo-acupuncture connection on the Ice Man after studying a drawing of the tattoos and their placement on Otzi’s body.

Modern day acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the patient’s skin at strategic points on his body and is often used to treat pain. It was rediscovered in the West during Nixon’s visit to China after prominent New York Times writer, James Reston, was successfully treated for pain following an emergency operation. Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine used to balance the flow of energy, or life force, which is believed to flow through channels or meridians in the body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that the patient’s energy flow will return to a healthy state.

Many Western practitioners, not convinced about the energetic systems in the body, view the acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. Though the beliefs differ from East to West in terms of what acupuncture does, many Western allopathic hospitals are embracing its use as an effective technology. The U.S. Army is currently using acupuncture to treat veteran’s symptoms, especially where traditional treatments have been almost ineffective. Many veterans have experienced relief from chronic pain from acupuncture treatments.

Once the Otzi-acupuncture connection was suggested, experts from three acupuncture societies examined the locations of the tattoos. They found that nine of the tattoos are located on the Urinary Bladder meridian, which is commonly associated with treating back pain. One of the cross-shaped tattoos is located near the left ankle on a point, which is considered the ‘master point’ for back pain.

Researchers also noted that five other tattoos located on the body corresponded with points located on the gall bladder, spleen, and liver meridians, points that are traditionally used to treat stomach disorders. So it seems that Otzi’s acupuncturist was treating both Otzi’s joint pain and his stomach distress. Since the tattoos seem to be placed not randomly, but corresponding to specific points, and are even clustered on specific meridians, the tattoos most likely represent a meaningful therapeutic regime.

In all, 80 percent of the tattoos fall on or near acupuncture points that are used today. Several answers to the question of why the Ice Man was tattooed rather than simply punctured have been suggested. First, the fresh tattoo may have been rubbed with charcoal to make a longer lasting effect. A second suggestion is even more interesting. The tattoos may have been a communal guide showing his relatives where to massage him to relieve his pain.

Current belief is that ancient Chinese acupuncture originated about 1,000 BC. One proposed theory is that it evolved from the use of sharpened stones sometime in the Neolithic Era. Some of the earliest documented writings on acupuncture date from around 500 BC. The evidence from the Ice Man’s therapeutic tattoos suggests acupuncture may have originated 2,000 years earlier than previously thought and may not have originated in China. This is clearly the oldest evidence we have of an early form of acupuncture in the world. The intentionality of the Ice Man’s treatment suggests a fully functional technology was in place at a time when we previously imagined peoples to have been much more primitive and uneducated.

This early appearance of acupuncture also seems to suggest more contact and trade between prehistoric cultures than previously thought. In response to the Ice Man’s findings, some researchers suggest acupuncture may have been practiced in shamanistic cultures in a more primitive form, but that only the Chinese formalized and maintained acupuncture in more modern times. Others suggest the technique may have been independently discovered by many different prehistoric European cultures. This theory might suggest that acupuncture arose naturally in any cultures that had an ‘energetic’ awareness of the body.

How often have modern scientific researchers had to revise their understanding of the trade and communication between so-called ‘primitive’ cultures? There is mounting evidence of well-developed technologies along with well-developed trade routes, which would account for the spreading of techniques like tattooing and medical knowledge of energy meridians.

In 2010, an Austrian medical team studied the tattoos on a 1000-year-old Andean woman from Chiribaya Alta in Peru. The female mummy has tattoos of birds, apes, reptiles, and other symbols on its body. Most intriguing to the researchers were 12 overlapping circles tattooed on the woman’s neck—the circles are suggestive of therapeutic tattoo spots since they correspond to acupuncture points used to relieve neck pain. The researchers note that in contrast to soot residue being found in the decorative tattoos on other parts of the body, the tattoos in the neck contained ‘pyrolyzed plant material,’ probably burned herbs. The researchers concluded that the neck tattoos were done with specific therapeutic intention. Moxibustion, or the burning of herbs in association with acupuncture points, is also part of the traditional Chinese treatment of acupuncture.

Historical records show that Egyptian tattooing from the 11th dynasty, around 2000 BCE, followed the energetic lines in the body. Images of the human body were garnished with simple dots and lines that depicted the flow of energy of the different gods and goddesses in human beings. Written records for the mummy of Amu-net revealed that there were many dots and lines tattooed across her body. The different dots and lines follow the flow of blood throughout the body and were aimed at aligning the human life force with the celestial flow of energy. There are also Egyptian figurines dating back to 4,000 BC, and female mummies from 2,000 BC, with tattoos on the abdomen, breasts, and thighs. Since researchers are now considering ancient acupuncture as a possibility, it’s now being proposed that these tattoos were also therapeutic in nature, a kind of permanent amulet for the birthing process.

A mummy of a Scythian chieftain found in Siberia in 1947, which dates from 500 BC, is another example of a wonderfully preserved individual discovered with very ornate tattoos. This chieftain had tattoos in zoomorphic designs covering his shoulders, arms, his lower right leg, and parts of his chest and back, which are very specific to the Sycthian culture. He also had two rows of dots tattooed down his spine—an unusually simple motif compared to his other tattoos. These spine dots are associated with an acupuncture meridian and could also have been used for therapeutic purposes.

Only since the discovery of Otzi and his tattoos have researchers begun to look for evidence of acupuncture in early mummies. From these few global examples it seems that early knowledge of the energies and meridians of the body was present across cultures, even when the artistic use of tattoos varied widely. The evidence indicates an advanced applied knowledge of the body and its systems, equal to some of our current understandings in modern medicine. This information contradicts the supposed low level of medical understanding and primitive level of communication and knowledge between humans at that time. Again, as with other discoveries, it seems that only when we’re faced with an obvious indication of ancient developments or technology that researchers will reconsider their basic assumptions about the sophistication of ancient cultures.

There are other examples where archaeologists have to reframe their understandings of the complexity and technology of early civilizations. Predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, finds from Turkey’s stunning Gobekli Tepe have been radically changing our conventional view of the rise of civilization. Archaeologists have been digging deeper into the hilltop site and revealing multiple circles composed of large pillars of limestone weighing from seven to sixteen tons each. These circles seem to be circular temples that are thought to be 11,600 years old. That’s 7,000 years before the accepted building of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

What is so amazing about this site is that the evidence seems to suggest there was a well organized community effort to create and sustain this large temple at a time 6,000 years before the invention of writing and before the invention of large-scale agricultural societies. Several successive circular temples were built one on top of the other. Each layer was then filled in with dirt, with a new temple being established on top. Scientists believe the people building the structures were hunter-gatherers and not agricultural people for a number of reasons, because of all the wild animal bones found around the site; because of the sculptures of wild animals depicted on the stones; and because there are no signs of long-term habitation at the site.

What researchers are finding at Gobekli Tepe suggests that history, as scholars have proposed it, may be backwards. Something brought a large group of hunter-gatherer, nomadic people together to build a temple that took hundreds of people working together for hundreds of years. Before this find, it was assumed that large constructions could only have occurred with stationary, agricultural societies. It was believed a group would require agricultural resources to supply the workforce needed to build such a structure. It has also been thought that the belief in God or Gods, needed to produce large temples, would not have been present in nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies.

Now historians are changing their story and saying that Gobekli Tepe is the ‘first human temple’ and that it was the urge to worship that sparked its construction and the birth of civilization. Yet, it seems presumptuous to assume this temple was the first, or even what complex motivations people could have had for creating it.

Once again, as new evidence is weighed, we stretch our beliefs as much as we’re forced to and latch on to a new, final truth without solving all the conundrums. For example, researchers don’t know why the oldest circles at Gobekli Tepe were the largest and the most sophisticated, technically and artistically. That one fact seems clearly to hint at some other advanced, prehistoric technology or community that may not have been discovered yet.

These latest scientific findings from the Ice Man and from Gobekli Tepe suggest that our earliest ancestors, who in many ways were almost identical to us, may have been more technologically advanced than we think. These views are outside of the academic mainstream and show that advanced civilizations may date much further back than is commonly believed.


Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is author of Transform Yourself: A Self-Hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See for more information.

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