Melting glaciers are revealing the mummified bodies of soldiers, ancient icemen, and long-lost adventurers

Frozen in time not much longer.
Frozen in time not much longer.
Image: AP Photo/John McConnico
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Throughout the ages, ice and snow mummified the bodies of those who met their unfortunate end in a glacial snowbank. Take, for instance, frozen bodies that poked through a glacier on Mexico’s highest mountain earlier this year. They are suspected to be two climbers who went missing in 1959.

As warming temperatures peel back glaciers, corpses are coming out of the cold more frequently.

Perhaps most famously, the oldest intact human corpse ever found—a 5,300-year-old Bronze Age iceman nicknamed “Ötzi”—popped out of a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, as highlights. Back in Ötzi’s era, the glacier stayed frozen all year. In 1999, scientists found an “iceman” in a melting British Columbia glacier. In South America, three Incan child mummies were found in northern Argentina in 2007. Thawing in Siberia has also revealed ancient Scythian warriors.

The 5,000-year-old body of a hunter discovered in 1991 by German hikers on the Similaun glacier at a 3,000 meters altitude (10,000 feet), on the Italian side of the Alps, and taken to the Austrian town of Innsbruck, where it's actually preserved. Seven years after it's recover authorities have decided that the Bronze Age mummy will be brought back to the Italian town of Bolzano Friday, January 16 1998, where a special museum has been built for it. (AP Photo) Innsbruck,Austria, Sep 24--Frozen Body--Scientists of the Institute of Early History at the University of Innsbruck, started to study the frozen well-preserved body, that was found by tourists in the Austrian Alps. First estimates said, the corpse is between 3.500 and 4.000 years. (PE/str/s.n.s.) 1991
Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old mummy.
Image: AP Photo

Other discoveries are not all that ancient. In glaciers around the world, crashed airplanes are a common source of mummified remains. Not far from where Ötzi was found in the Italian Alps, glacial retreat exposed soldiers who died in the First World War, in a little-known skirmish called the White War. As the Telegraph reports, the weather claimed more soldiers than fighting. Temperatures could fall to -30°C (-22°F), and they were under constant threat of the “white death”—being entombed by an avalanche.

The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012.
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012.
Image: Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento, via The Telegraph

For archaeologists, this is both exhilarating and alarming, as this Archaeology Magazine article notes. While the rapid pace of new discoveries is creating new opportunities to study past cultures. However, since mummies exposed to the elements begin decaying just as corpses in warmer climates do, archaeologists are now in a race against climate change.

Oddly enough, the archaeological challenges related to climate change aren’t limited to frozen glacial mummies. Mummies created by the Chinchorro culture that lived in coastal Chile and Peru—who pioneered mummification two millennia before the Egyptians—had survived for 7,000 years. Until recently, that is. In the last decade, mummies have been turning into black ooze; and scientists think the changing humidity resulting from climate change is the culprit.