The last few minutes of Oetzi’s life were brutal: he was hit in the back with an arrow, he fell bleeding, and also suffered a head injury. As the Iceman lay dying, it’s possible he gave a final cry of pain. But despite being one of the most thoroughly examined murder victims in the world, no one knows how his voice 5,300 years ago would have sounded. Now a group of researchers plans to reconstruct the sound of the mummy’s voice.
“It’s actually about reconstructing the vocal tract, so the whole cavity between the vocal cords and the lips,” says project leader Francesco Avanzini, a nose and throat specialist and director of South Tyrol’s clinic for phoniatrics who’s leading the project to give Oetzi a voice.
It will all be happening in virtual reality of course — Oetzi, who lived during the late Neolithic period and whose mummified body was discovered in 1991 on the border between Austria and Italy, will remain in his chilled display cabinet in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.
“We’re working with CT scans, the mummy will remain intact,” says Avanzini. “The bone structure is quite easy to reconstruct in 3D,” adds his colleague Rolando Fuestoes, head of the ear, nose and throat department at the regional hospital in Bolzano. Other parts of the canal will be more difficult.
“Oetzi’s muscles and mucous membranes have shrunk of course. But the sound depends on their natural composition,” explains Piero Cosi, an electronic engineer who works on voice recognition systems at the University of Padua and who will reproduce Oetzi’s voice with the help of software.
This is why Bernhard Richter, director of the Freiburg Institute for Musicians’ Medicine, warns of setting expectations too high. “The problem is that the vocal tract isn’t a frozen entity, it’s constantly in movement and its shape changes. That’s how the sounds change and to get all that from a single CT scan is difficult of course,” he says.
“You’ll be able to reconstruct the basic prerequisites of how Oetzi produced his voice, but you won’t actually be able to hear his voice.” Another problem for the doctors is Oetzi’s left arm, which in death lies over his neck and therefore over his voicebox.
“That’s a serious problem because the arm prevents the correct position of the hyoid bone, an important bone in the throat, from being measured,” says Avanzini. “So it depends on whether we can find the position of the hyoid bone and establish what the bone looked like.”
The researchers hope for some initial results from their unique project in just a few months. “It’s hard to predict, but we suspect — because he was a small man — that he perhaps had a higher voice,” says Avancini. Richter believes Oetzi wouldn’t have sounded that different from a modern man.
“He’s only been dead for around 5,000 years. Not that much has happened to the vocal tract in evolutionary terms,” he says. But it would be interesting to know how Oetzi had used his voice, he says.
Around a quarter of a million people come to see Oetzi at the South Tyrol Museum every year. But whether they’ll soon also be able to hear what his voice may have sounded like will be decided when the project has finished, says acting museum director Katharina Hersel.
Oetzi won’t be speaking whole sentences. “We know that we won’t be able to reconstruct the language that Oetzi spoke, so we’ll limit ourselves to sound and tone,” says Hersel. But Avanzini can imagine what noise Oetzi would have made just before he died. “Perhaps an ‘ahhh’ as he got hit by the arrow, but we’ll see,” he says with a smile.
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