Monday 1 April 2013

Sex in the Snow

The Ology of the Month for April is Archaeology. I’ll give a proper introduction tomorrow because here’s the perfect story for today, April Fool’s Day.

Last year I gave you the story of the “gay caveman”. That wasn’t the first time that such an idea had been suggested. This story is an actual April Fool’s joke about a prehistoric mummy found buried in snow which media at the time kept referring to as a “caveman”. Thankfully, they call is an “iceman” these days. The subject is quite topical at the moment because last month there were two documentaries on British television featuring the “caveman” concerned (“The Curse of the Ice Mummy” and “Iceman Murder Mystery”). There’s obviously still a lot of interest in the ice mummy since it was discovered in 1991. So here’s the iceman’s story.

On a cold September day in 1991 two German tourists discovered a body in the snow in the Ötzal Alps on the Italian-Austrian border. At first they thought it was a mountaineer who had got lost and perished in the cold. It wasn’t long before the body was named Ötzi, after the part of the Alps where he was found. After being removed from the  mountain and examined at the University of Innsbruck carbon dating revealed that the body was older than anyone thought – over 5,000 years older, in fact. I needn’t go into the details of the scientific investigations about Ötzi and the causes of his death, but if you’re interested, here is his Wikipedia entry.

As the titles of the documentaries imply there’s a lot of controversial theories surrounding Ötzi, not least of which was who “owns” him. The remote Alpine border between Italy and Austria where he was found obviously isn’t marked by border check-points or huge sign posts so each country’s government claimed he was found on their soil and should remain in their country. Even though Austria claimed Ötzi first, a survey of the area found that he was in fact just short of 100 metres from their border, and so Ötzi is now on display in Italy.

Something about Ötzi inspired many strange theories. Within a year of his discovery, as well as the battle over ownership, the media in the Alpine countries were full of stories such as the body being a modern fraud and scientists covering up the truth. There was even a woman who claimed to be Ötzi’s reincarnation.

But the queerest of all the stories to be circulated was that Ötzi was gay and had sex not long before his death! An article in the Austrian magazine “Lamdba Nachrichten” reported that scientists had found remains of bodily fluid from another man inside Ötzi’s remains which indicated very clearly that he had been on the receiving end of sex. Scientists kept this discovery secret or orders from the Austrian government who weren’t keen on having the Ötzel Alps being turned into some gay pilgrimage site! The magazine announced to the world that Ötzi was the first ever homosexual known to have had sex.

With such a lot of interest in Ötzi already, it was only a couple of days before other European newspapers picked up the stories. Five months later an American news agency got hold of it and distributed it to many lgbt newspapers around the world.

If the American news agency had examined the story more closely it would have realised that the story was just one big April Fool’s joke. The most obvious clue being the date on which the original story was published by “Lamdba Nachrichten” – April 1st! And a look at the photographs of Ötzi available at the time clearly shows that the part of his body where the sexual act was alleged to have taken place didn’t actually survive the mummification process. When the American agency realised what the story was it hastily, and rather embarrassingly, issued a correction.

The whole story of Ötzi’s sex life was invented by the writers on “Lamdba Nachrichten”, a magazine produced by one of Austria’s leading lgbt organisations, Homosexuelle Initiative Wienn (HOSI Wienn). “Lamdba Nachritchen” began publication in 1979 and is still going strong, making it the oldest continuously published lgbt magazine in Austria, possibly even in Europe. Whether the creators of the Özti story realised how much of an impact it would make or not, it certainly remained in circulation for quite a while – 5 months – before people realised it was an April Fool joke.

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