PEEK INTO THE ICEMAN'S PREHISTORIC MEDICINE KIT
12/07/98 03:24:08 PM * By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
A traveler out of the past, the Iceman, whose mummified body was
discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in Northern Italy in 1991, has given
archeologists and other scientists a lifelike picture of what people wore
and ate and carried with them on treks into the Alps 5,300 years ago, at
the end of the Stone Age and beginning of the Copper Age in Europe.
An anthropologist reported last week that the Iceman was also providing
a rare glimpse of prehistoric medicine, including his apparent use of a
natural laxative and antibiotic.
Among the Iceman's possessions were two walnut-size lumps with a
consistency somewhere between cork and leather. Each lump was
pierced and tied to a leather thong, perhaps so it could be fastened to
some part of his clothing or belt. At first, the material was mistakenly
described as tinder for starting fires.
But Austrian microbiologists have identified the lumps as the fruit of
birch fungus, Piptoporus betulinus, which is common in alpine and other
cold environments. If the fungus is ingested, it can bring on short bouts
diarrhea. It also contains oils that are toxic to certain parasitic bacteria,
thus acting as a form of nature's own antibiotics.
Scientists have not yet been able to determine the cause of the Iceman's
death, but studies of his body have yielded a picture of a man stiff with
arthritis who had not eaten in his last eight hours and may have died of
exhaustion in a sudden snowstorm.
An autopsy of the well-preserved body has at least revealed the apparent
reason the fungus was among the Iceman's remedies of the road. British
scientists found in the man's colon the eggs of a parasitic whipworm,
Trichuris trichiura. This infestation causes diarrhea and acute stomach
pains. It can also bring on anemia, which might explain the evidence of
low iron content in some of the mummy's muscles.
In the current issue of the British medical journal Lancet, Dr. Luigi
Capasso, an anthropologist at the National Archeological Museum in
Chieti, Italy, reviewed the evidence and concluded, ``The discovery of
fungus suggests that the Iceman was aware of his intestinal parasites and
fought them with measured doses of Piptoporus betulinus.''
As Capasso pointed out, the birch fungus contains toxic resins that attack
parasites like whipworm and another compound, agaric acid, which is a
powerful laxative. The combined properties of the fungus could have
brought at least temporary relief by purging the Iceman's intestines of
nearly all of the worms and their eggs.
The birch fungus, Capasso wrote, was probably the only such remedy
available in Europe before introduction of the far more toxic chenopod
from the Americas. The chenopod is a low shrub found in arid
environments of South America. The efficacy of chenopod oil as a
medicine was increased by adding a strong laxative that expelled the
worms and their eggs.
In ``The Man in the Ice,'' published in 1994 (Harmony Books, $25), Dr.
Konrad Spindler, an archeologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria
who led the early investigation of the mummy, noted the first evidence
suggesting that the Iceman might have been carrying some natural
``All folk medicine has its origins in prehistory,'' Spindler wrote. ``Over
hundreds and thousands of years remedies were passed on from
generation to generation. The modern pharmaceutical industry has
frequently analyzed the active constituents of traditional medicines and
makes use of them to this day, where synthetic forms cannot be
Seen in this light, the Iceman with his modest but no doubt effective
traveling medicine kit, is not all that remote from ourselves.''
Dr. John F. Leslie, a fungal geneticist at Kansas State University who
editor of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, called the
reported link between the fungus and the Iceman's intestinal parasites
interesting and exciting finding.''
He said the toxins effective as medicine were produced by the fungi to
protect themselves and their food source in the tree.
Dr. Michael G. Rinaldi, a clinical mycologist at the University of Texas
Health Science Center in San Antonio, said he would like to see more
evidence supporting the inference that the Iceman was consciously
treating the parasites with the fungus.
If that proves to be the case, he said, ``It just shows that from earliest
time, people when they were sick would try whatever they could to make
it go away, even if they never had a clue as to why it made them feel