The 1991 discovery of a mummy who lived between 3350 and 3105 BC revealed fascinating facts about people from what is now Europe over 5000 years ago. The tools and weapons that he was carrying indicate just how important wood was as a material for the survival in the Copper Age, and how knowledge about the environment people lived in allowed them to survive and to thrive.

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy where he is resting tell us that Ötzi ‘was very familiar with the qualities of the raw materials he had at his disposal. He knew which wood to use to make arrows and how to carve a bow.’ The Iceman’s axe handle and an unfinished bow were made from yew, a stable and tough wood. His quiver, stuffed with arrows made from wayfaring tree and cornelian cherry branches, had a hazel support attached – all considered choices given the properties of these materials. Hazel, an elastic and durable wood, was also used as structural foundation in Ötzi’s backpack. He also carried string made from the inner tree bark, or bast, fibre. Bast of lime tree was also used as a sheath for the flint dagger, the handle of which was made from the durable ash wood.

Some of Ötzi’s arrows were made from the wayfaring tree, or viburnum lantana, and here’s Rory from our team with a freshly cut example

The knowledge of trees, and the environment overall, was essential for the survival in pre-industrial ages. A ubiquitous illustration of this is the use of birch tar, one of the oldest gluing agents in human history, to attach the fletchings to Ötzi’s arrows. Birch bark was used to make light and durable cylindrical containers, and these are still made and used to this day in some parts of the world including Italy and Siberia. In fact, birch bark has been utilised across the world to make anything from shoes to canoes and is used to this day to make baskets, decorative containers, paper and much more.

In the thousands of years that followed wood continued to be integral to human existence and the development of societies. In the present day for example trees, especially mature ones, are integral in combating the global warming due to them storing the shamefully plentiful carbon dioxide we produce; trees and the shade they provide lower the temperatures in the ever increasing heat waves that can otherwise make life in some cities unbearable; trees connect us to nature and the ancient past by allowing us to eat their fruit, to build houses from their wood, to heat our homes, make art, furniture and crafts, to sleep under their protective canopies and swing from their strong branches.

It is therefore essential to continue gaining the knowledge about plants, nature, our environment, and to share it. The technological advancements might have altered how we live on this earth, but not the fact that we are part of it, responsible to it, and dependent on it.