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 the 
                                        birch fungus, Piptoporus betulinus, which is common in alpine and other 
                                        cold environments. If the fungus is ingested, it can bring on short bouts of 
                                        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 the 
                                        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 oil 
                                        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 is 
                                        editor of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, called the 
                                        reported link between the fungus and the Iceman's intestinal parasites ``an 
                                        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 

                                        NYT-12-07-98 1621EST 

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