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What Ötzi the Iceman’s Tattoos Reveal About Copper Age Medical Practices (smithsonianmag.com)
80 points by Thevet 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

Photos here:


Not at all like modern tattoos. I wasn't expecting anchors and skulls, but these are very simple and don't appear to have any rounded edges.

What's striking to me is that they appear "precise", so it required training and technique. It wasn't some kind of amateur inking.

> the tattoos, which were created via small incisions traced with charcoal

That makes me assume that each of line was made with a single straight-line cut that was rubbed with charcoal.

PBS (US) had a show covering this the other night. The tattoo locations corresponded to areas of arthritis. Also carried different fungi, one for fire starter, another for antisceptic.

Interesting that the tattoos, tools, and medicine pointed to a level of specialization that would have been supported by agricultural civilization, not by hunter gathers.

What makes you think he was a hunter & gatherer?

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondsee_group https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remedello_culture

They had settlements, mining, knew how to work with copper and how to make pottery. They had agriculture since about 5500 b.c. in that area.

Interested in that statement (I know little about this area) but why do you say that specialisation would only occur in an agricultural civilisation?

The theory goes that hunter gatherers have to spend a lot more time just getting enough food to survive, and don't generate the surplus food to dedicate people to medicine or to manufacturing.

My understanding is that this is not very controversial within academic circles, but outside of academia, I personally know a lot of people who seem to think that living off the land is easy and would leave you with a lot of free time.

The other argument is one of density. For specialization, you need enough people nearby for the specialist to trade with. Hunter-gatherers need a lot more space per person than agricultural societies. In a hunter-gatherer society, you'd have to travel a lot further, potentially while carrying food and trade goods, to get to that doctor or that smith.

The hypothesis that hunter-gatherers spent more time getting food does not seem to be supported or accepted in academia. Lots of research out the past few years that indicate the HG lifestyle had much more leisure time than agrarian.

This may be confounded by different lifestyles -- without incentives to create and store surplus, no need to work more. No extra benefit.

I am not an expert, but it seems very unsettled whether HG had more or less time spent at work.

I doubt people would transition to agriculture if it was harder than living off the land.

With all things evolutionary, you have to keep in mind the environment.

Agriculture in 5000 BCE in places developing it may very well have been harder than hunter-gathering in 8000 BCE... but easier than hunter-gathering in 5000 BCE in the places developing agricultural. Environmental changes, increased population density, and loss of key plant and animal species could make what was once an idyllic lifestyle nearly impossible, and what was formerly a back-breaking waste of time “better than slowly starving to death”.

> I doubt people would transition to agriculture if it was harder than living off the land.

I'm mostly with you, so I'm not good at summarizing the other side's point. But I think there are several reasonable assumptions they talk about where they might be right:

1: these people usually assume that very low population densities are desirable (I mean, obviously, that's a prerequisite for hunter gatherer society) This is their strongest point, really, that no matter how fertile the area you live in, once you get more than a certain population density, you need to go agricultural or you need to starve.

2: before agriculture, perhaps people only lived in the areas where food was super plentiful naturally. It's totally possible, maybe even likely that there used to be more areas like that than there were after history started being recorded. - this argument is reasonable, but it's mostly a callback to 1. An active human eats a lot, and it doesn't take a whole lot of humans to deplete just about any eden.

I mean, the obvious counterpoint within this context is that density really helps encourage specialization, so even if the life of a low-density hunter-gatherer is easier, it's not going to involve a whole lot of specialization.

Regarding 2', many groups of humans found ways to live in the most remote and barren places on earth (the Arctic regions, the Australian desert...) for up to 18000 years.

Agriculture can support higher population density. If you've got mouths to feed, you do the hard work. There is a hypothesis that the cold Younger Dryas period around 12,000 years ago pushed people in the fertile crescent into cereal cultivation, since the colder temperatures meant less available food for hunter-gatherer populations that had grown during the warmer period preceding it.

The first farmers were significantly less healthy than the hunter-gatherers they followed [1].

[1] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2011/06/17/early-f...

"I doubt people would transition to agriculture if it was harder than living off the land. "

As Darwin characterized evolution: The hunters and gathers just died off, and the tribes in agriculture survived. It wasn't a 'choice'.

I strongly recommend you check out the book Sapiens. This is one of his core arguments - that the life of an agriculturist was much worse than that of a hunter gatherer because the agriculturist would have a less varied diet, would be vulnerable to famines, would have weaker immune systems (due to weaning sooner) etc.

And yet some people chose to become agriculturists anyway because it appeared to promise a better, more stable life. Each change they'd make would be small. They'd start out collecting wild wheat, say. They'd eat it and move on. They'd figure out that coming back to that area at a certain time of the year made sense, so they would. Then they'd figure, let's scatter these seeds so they'd spend a little time before moving on. Then one person might have realised, planting it deeper yielded better results. So they would plough the land a bit and move on. But as they invested more effort into the land, the more food they'd get from it. They'd start to spend more time living in that area, protecting their work.

But then two things would happen

1. Their 100 person hunter gatherer band would expand, to a larger group, say 150. That area could support a hundred hunter gatherers easily, but not 150. If no one in the group wanted to starve, they had to continue farming.

2. Gradually over a few generations, the number of people in the settlement would grow let's say 10 fold. These people would set up other settlements and practice agriculture there. It's not like they could be hunter gatherers because by then the knowledge would have been lost. The density of these settlements also meant that in any conflict with hunter gatherers over territory, the agriculturists would win. So gradually, there would be way more agriculturists.

Each farmer might be less happy than the average hunter gatherer, but the farmers' advantages meant that there would be way more farmers anyway. If we started out in an area with 500 farmers and 500 hunter-gatherers, in a 1000 years, we'd end up with 5000 farmers and 500 hunter-gatherers (assuming they were allowed to stay). A 50-50 split becomes 90-10.

I've paraphrased Yuval Noah Harari here. I think it's worth reading the whole book because he presents this really well. What's more, you start to evaluate ideas (is farming a good idea?) not just in terms of their merits, but also in terms of how well the idea will survive. Survival of the fittest applied to ideas. Agriculture, in that sense is a _better_ idea, not because it makes people happy, but because with time it has more adherents.

>Each farmer might be less happy than the average hunter gatherer, but the farmers' advantages meant that there would be way more farmers anyway. If we started out in an area with 500 farmers and 500 hunter-gatherers, in a 1000 years, we'd end up with 5000 farmers and 500 hunter-gatherers (assuming they were allowed to stay). A 50-50 split becomes 90-10.

Ok, so you are in a society without birth control. How do you think the hunter-gatherer population is limited?

My guess is starvation.

It could be harder for most, except for those gaining a new power from being at the top of a new, larger society.

What's with all the acupuncture?

My understanding is that acupuncture evolved from earlier bloodletting practices which were common throughout Eurasia.


what's wrong with the article?

Oh wait I'm so sorry, did someone change the original post? When I click the title now an article I never read pops up. I was ranting about this article: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2015/01/30/scienti... It's just very poor quality and sensational.

What, the word "tats" isn't used in standard scientific reporting?

The new link isn't better.

Very sensationalist.

This can't even qualify as pseudo-science.

Technically it’s history and anthropology.


Whatever category reading tarot cards and tea leaves falls under...

If said tarot cards and tea leaves are 5000+ years old, then studying them could certainly be done scientifically.

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