Ötzi, Rhaetians, Romans
The Man from the glacier provides us with undreamt-of insights into life in the Bronze Age, while the Rhaetians - the ancient inhabitants of South Tyrol - and their Roman conquerors have all left their marks.
As the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded (approx. 12,000 BC) the Alpine valleys began to attract groups of hunter-gatherers, while the first permanent human settlements here where the inhabitants engaged in livestock keeping and farming were established around 7,000 years ago. In approximately 3,200 BC a man died while crossing the glacier in the Val Senales/Schnalstal valley. A flint arrow tip was lodged in his shoulder, which points to a fight or ambush. His body was almost instantly covered by snow and consumed by the glacier, where he lay preserved until 1991 when the eternal ice yielded up one of the most sensational archaeological finds of all time. A journalist dubbed him Ötzi because the place where he was found was in the Ötztal Alps, and the name stuck. His body, clothes and belongings - including goatskin leggings and a grass cape, a copper-headed axe and a quiver full of arrows – survived in almost perfect condition and can be seen in the South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology.
The first evidence of trading goes back to the early Bronze Age (1,800-1,500 BC). The developing copper mining activity yielded the much sought-after ore needed for the production of bronze objects and became an important trading commodity. An independent culture developed from this period, named the Laugen-Mellaun Culture after the places where characteristic ceramic objects were found. At that time people settled on the sunny mountainsides at medium altitude or on hilltops. When the area which was later to become Tyrol first makes its appearance in history it was inhabited by the Rhaetians (probably a Celtic race, though some still hold that they were connected with the Etruscans – their alphabet was derived from Etruscan). The Iron Age Fritzens-Sanzeno culture of which remnants have been found in South Tyrol, Trentino and Tyrol in general was also called the Rhaetian culture after the goddess Rhaetia who, according to the Romans, was the inhabitants’ main deity.
The Rhaetians were conquered by the Romans in 15 BC, the army led by the stepsons of the Emperor Augustus Caesar, Drusus and Tiberius. The area covered by present-day Tyrol was divided into the Roman provinces Rhaetia, Noricum and Venetia cum Histris, all linked by military roads such as the Via Claudia Augusta and with garrisons in strategic places. Improved communications fostered Romanisation. Remains of early Christian churches reveal that Christianity had spread here by the twilight years of the Roman Empire.
During the 5th century AD the Romans withdrew from the Alpine region and the valleys were continually ravaged by advancing barbarian tribes. Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards and Slavs pillaged their way south, forcing the local population to flee to fortified settlements in the higher regions. The central valleys were subsequently settled by Bavarian tribes who moved in from the north and whose culture and language became dominant over the following centuries. An independent language which combines elements of vulgar Latin and the old Rhaetian language survived in remote areas. Called Ladin it is still spoken in the secluded valleys of the Dolomites.