World’s oldest cold case: the murder mystery dating back 5,300 years

On the top of a deserted glacier on the border of Italy and Austria, a brutal murder has taken place. One of Europe’s best detectives, Chief Inspector Alex Horn, is on the case. He has a body and a crime scene, but no witnesses. And there’s just one other small problem – he’s 5,300 years too late.

The victim was found frozen in ice. Police first thought he was a hiker who had fallen to his death, but he didn’t match any missing person’s reports, and no one came forward to police.

It turns out that the body was old – very old. It was one of the most perfectly preserved mummies ever found; a frozen flesh and bone time capsule of the Copper Age, 5,300 years ago. They called him Ötzi.

There were things that had scientists baffled. Ötzi had a wound in his shoulder from an arrow that was never found, and stab marks on his right hand. One thing was clear: Ötzi’s death was no accident.

So began the coldest of cold cases. One of Europe’s most renowned detectives, Chief Inspector Alex Horn, was brought on board. He has a reputation for putting some of Germany’s toughest killers behind bars.

“He was preserved in such a good way in the ice, that actually he’s in a better condition than some of the murder cases that I was working on,” Chief Inspector Horn explained. “Therefore we decided we were going to give it a try.”

The Chief Inspector and his team determined that the arrow wound entered through Ötzi’s shoulder, with his back to his attacker. The knife wounds also appeared to be defensive, making it clear that he had been attacked.

Forensic tests showed that this defence wound on his hand happened about two days before Ötzi was murdered – a breakthrough in the case.

“Probably, he was in a fight, and he won that fight,” Chief Inspector Horn hypothesised. “I think it’s not a coincidence that you have a… classic defence wound injury and you’ve got a murder the next day. There’s a high probability that this is linked.”

Injured and maybe fearing his attackers would come back to finish the job, Ötzi fled, making the treacherous journey up the glacier that separates modern-day Italy and Austria – somewhere he thought he’d be safe. Yet it didn’t work – 48 hours after surviving the first attack, the second would be fatal.

While the team may still not have determined a motivation for the attack, Ötzi’s body is giving new answers of what life was like at the time. The food in is stomach – dried meat and grains – shows what he ate. Minerals in his bones and teeth show Ötzi grew up north of the Alps but moved south in his final months. The pollen in his gut reveals he died in late spring.

He suffered from diseases that, until now, doctors believed were modern ailments.

This ancient man has turned medicine on its head.

“He had quite a lot of diseases – he had, for example, intestinal parasites,” reveals mummy expert Albert Zinc. “He already [had] problems with his heart, with his arteries. He also had degenerative diseases like in the spine, in his knee joints and his ankle joints. We found a pathogen in his stomach that predates one of the most frequent diseases we have.”

“It’s fascinating because it turns out that’s he’s human like we are, so he’s very close to us, [and] we very much hope that by analysing these diseases in an ancient patient we can learn something for our medicine and… help our modern patients to get rid of or to prevent these diseases.”


Reporter: Steve Pennells

Producer: Nick Farrow