The last few minutes of Oetziâ€™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, itâ€™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 mummyâ€™s voice.
â€œItâ€™s actually about reconstructing the vocal tract, so the whole cavity between the vocal cords and the lips,â€ says project leader Francesco Avanzini, a nose and throat specialist and director of South Tyrolâ€™s clinic for phoniatrics whoâ€™s leading the project to give Oetzi a voice.
It will all be happening in virtual reality of course â€” 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.
â€œWeâ€™re working with CT scans, the mummy will remain intact,â€ says Avanzini. â€œThe bone structure is quite easy to reconstruct in 3D,â€ 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.
â€œOetziâ€™s muscles and mucous membranes have shrunk of course. But the sound depends on their natural composition,â€ explains Piero Cosi, an electronic engineer who works on voice recognition systems at the University of Padua and who will reproduce Oetziâ€™s voice with the help of software.
This is why Bernhard Richter, director of the Freiburg Institute for Musiciansâ€™ Medicine, warns of setting expectations too high. â€œThe problem is that the vocal tract isnâ€™t a frozen entity, itâ€™s constantly in movement and its shape changes. Thatâ€™s how the sounds change and to get all that from a single CT scan is difficult of course,â€ he says.
â€œYouâ€™ll be able to reconstruct the basic prerequisites of how Oetzi produced his voice, but you wonâ€™t actually be able to hear his voice.â€ Another problem for the doctors is Oetziâ€™s left arm, which in death lies over his neck and therefore over his voicebox.
â€œThatâ€™s a serious problem because the arm prevents the correct position of the hyoid bone, an important bone in the throat, from being measured,â€ says Avanzini. â€œSo it depends on whether we can find the position of the hyoid bone and establish what the bone looked like.â€
The researchers hope for some initial results from their unique project in just a few months. â€œItâ€™s hard to predict, but we suspect â€” because he was a small man â€” that he perhaps had a higher voice,â€ says Avancini. Richter believes Oetzi wouldnâ€™t have sounded that different from a modern man.
â€œHeâ€™s only been dead for around 5,000 years. Not that much has happened to the vocal tract in evolutionary terms,â€ 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 theyâ€™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 wonâ€™t be speaking whole sentences. â€œWe know that we wonâ€™t be able to reconstruct the language that Oetzi spoke, so weâ€™ll limit ourselves to sound and tone,â€ says Hersel. But Avanzini can imagine what noise Oetzi would have made just before he died. â€œPerhaps an â€˜ahhhâ€™ as he got hit by the arrow, but weâ€™ll see,â€ he says with a smile.
Iceman may â€˜talkâ€™ the Stone Age again!