The finding by researchers led by Klaus Hollemeyer of German's Saarland University supports the idea that the iceman, dubbed Oetzi, was a herdsman.
Although the social and cultural background of the iceman has been debated since his mummified remains were discovered, the origin of his clothes was uncertain. The new study, utilizing mass spectrometry, focused on hair samples taken from Oetzi's coat, leggings and moccasin shoes.
"We found the hairs came from sheep and cattle, just the types of animals that herdsmen care for during their seasonal migrations," said Hollemeyer.
The researchers analyzed hair samples more than 5,000 years old using MALDITOF (matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization) mass spectrometry. That allowed them to study patterns of peptides of fermented proteins present in the ancient hair and compare them with those of modern day animals.
The researchers said MALDITOF mass spectrometry may be faster and more reliable than methods based on DNA analysis and could be applied in archaeology and evolutionary biology.
The findings and the technology are reported in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.