Dr. Robert Mann, deputy scientific director at the Joint POW / MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, worked to identify an airman who was found in October 2005 on Mount Mendel. The airman was identified as Leo Mustonen, a cadet who died in a 1942 plane crash on the mountain.
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Melting global ice likely to reveal yet more mummified secrets from the past
By Mark Grossi and Cyndee Fontana / The Fresno Bee
09/09/08 22:37:11
Two bodies found in a Sierra Nevada glacier are the first ice mummies recovered in the lower 48 states. But people around the world have been finding frozen bodies for decades.

These discoveries inspire both scientific interest and morbid curiosity: Who were these mummies? How did they die? How tall were they? What were they wearing? How did they wind up in the ice that preserved them for ages?

As the climate warms, and glaciers melt, there probably will be more of these creepy but fascinating stories, experts say.

"I'm sure more bodies are going to be found," said forensic anthropologist Paul Emanovsky, who examines remains for the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.

Since the early 1990s, frozen bodies have been found in Europe, South America and Asia -- including, in 1999, that of George Mallory on Mount Everest. Mallory is the English explorer who died climbing Everest in the 1920s.

Such ice mummies usually are created by accident: Someone dies in a place where extreme cold prevents bacteria and fungi from destroying the corpse -- often a glacier or an ice sheet. The body is slowly engulfed in ice. In the process, it dries out quickly in the thin, arid air at high elevations. Bacteria and fungi, which cause decay, can't grow where there is no water. And the tiny organisms do not survive at subfreezing temperatures.

As the body dries out, internal organs shrink. The weight of the corpse drops, sometimes by more than half. Skin tissue darkens and toughens.

The body eventually becomes covered in ice and freezes solid, preserving it from decomposition, as well as animal scavengers, for decades -- or centuries.

In the examination of ice mummies, DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and other techniques allow scientists to estimate when death occurred. Scientists also can often determine the cause of death and even the person's diet.

Emanovsky and fellow military anthropologist Robert Mann examined the bodies and personal effects of both frozen airmen who were found on Mendel Glacier in Kings Canyon National Park in 2005 and 2007.

The skin of the airmen had turned leathery, yet remained fairly pliable, Mann said.

"There was beard stubble," he said. Having been partly exposed, "the body was moist and cold. If you saw it, you would recognize it as a human."

Icy time capsules

These and other bodies are compelling artifacts of another time. The most famous ice mummy is, by far, the oldest.

Called Ötzi -- after the Ötztal Alps, just inside the border between Italy and Austria, where he was found -- the 5,300-year-old body came out of a melting glacier. A couple on vacation in 1991 found it in a gully.

The discovery set off a binge of scientific study and theorizing.

New ideas or reports were followed with headlines every few years throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2007, the so-called "Iceman" was still making news. The British Broadcasting Corp. headline said: "Iceman bled to death on glacier."

European scientists had established that the man was shot with an arrow, which apparently tore an artery.

But scientists later changed their minds and said that he died from a blow to the head. More questions followed: Did he die in a fall? Was he ambushed? Was he fleeing?

Ice mummies also are becoming part of popular culture.

In a new children's book, author James M. Deem writes about many mummies, including the discovery of the body of a 14-year-old girl who had died 500 years earlier in the South American Andes.

Deem's book, called "Bodies from the Ice: Melting glaciers and the recovery of the past," will be published in October.

The body of the frozen girl, called Juanita, was found in 1995 -- the first female Incan mummy ever found.

Deem said there have been other discoveries of bodies in ice on the North American continent. One was Kwaday Dän Ts'inchi -- "Long ago person found" in the Southern Tutchone language in Canada.

Canadian wild sheep hunters discovered the body at a British Columbia glacier in 1999. Researchers used carbon dating to determine Kwaday died sometime between 1670 and 1850.

Kwaday is an important discovery because he gives researchers clues about life at that time, Deem said.

As with the Iceman in Europe, there was a media field day over Kwaday. News reports told readers that his body was found in two parts -- a headless torso with a missing right arm and the lower body missing the right leg below the knee.

Researchers believe Kwaday was about 20 years old and died from exposure in a blizzard.

They studied his intestines to learn about his diet. They also examined his clothing for pollen that might indicate the existence of different tree species in that part of Canada.

Crash preserved

There is no similar flurry of study on the two mummified U.S. airmen, cadets Leo Mustonen and Ernest "Glenn" Munn. The military knows that they, along with two other men, died in a 1942 plane crash on Mendel Glacier, about 70 miles east of Fresno.

Their bodies and personal effects were examined for identification purposes, and the remains given to the families for burial.

The frozen airmen had little to tell science compared to the Iceman. The oldest coins found in their clothing were from 1942. The parachutes were the same as those found in museums.

Anthropologists, who focus primarily on the personal effects of the victims, noted that one airman had a Schaeffer fountain pen and a partial limerick or poem on a piece of paper in a pocket.

There are other little-known details in reports from the military and the Fresno County Coroner's Office, where chief forensic pathologist Venu C. Gopal first examined the two bodies.

Both were completely dried out and largely intact. They were much smaller in death than in life.

The first body, for instance, measured 62 inches long and weighed 61 pounds, meaning he had shrunk 10 inches and lost more than half his body weight.

Both mummies had broken bones throughout their bodies, and teeth were missing -- quite understandable, considering the trauma of a plane striking mountain granite at more than 100 miles per hour.

Military forensic summaries report both airmen had injuries that suggest they may have attempted to open their parachutes before they died. Officials declined to describe the injuries.

The reporters can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com, cfontana@fresnobee.comor (559) 441-6330.
In this photo from the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology, a researcher in Bolzano, Italy, prepares to take samples of the 5,300-year-old body of a Bronze Age hunter known as Ítzi. Ítzi's discovery in 1991 by a vacationing couple set off a binge of scientific study and theorizing.
In this photo from the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology, a researcher in Bolzano, Italy, prepares to take samples of the 5,300-year-old body of a Bronze Age hunter known as Ítzi. Ítzi's discovery in 1991 by a vacationing couple set off a binge of scientific study and theorizing.