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Last month, a team of scientists from Italy and Germany found intact red blood cells, using nanotechnology, in the wounds of Ötzi the 5,300 year old “iceman” mummy.
“Up to now there had been uncertainty about how long blood could survive – let alone what human blood cells from the Chalcolithic period, the Copper Stone Age, might look like,” Albert Zink – who is a part of the team and Head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman European Academy Bozen-Bolzano (EURAC) – states in the EURAC news release.
Ötzi, the oldest European mummy, was discovered naturally preserved in a glacier at the Ötzal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. The cause of his death has been a mystery. Considering the location, scientists deduced that he may have died from the cold, fatigue, and starvation.
However, other speculations express that he was murdered or had been a part of a ritual sacrifice. The bruises on his head indicate that he was hit on the head with a rock, there is an arrowhead wound on the back of his left shoulder, and a wound on the back of his right hand. Furthermore, he was found lying in a rather strange posture. It has been considered that Ötzi specifically died from the arrow wound, immediately.
According to the team’s research paper, head-authored by Merek Janko, “Blood can indicate the general health status of a[n] individual and it can be analyzed to detect pathological conditions or to provide valuable information in forensic crime scene investigations,” further providing more information about Ötzi, his state of health when he died, and the manner of his death.
Scientists in the past attempted to find blood cells before, in Ötzi’s aorta, but were unsuccessful. With his colleagues Janko and Robert Stark, both of whom work at the Center of Smart Interfaces at Darmstadt Technical University, Zink studied layers of tissue from the arrowhead wound and the right hand laceration with an atomic force microscope. Through scanning the tissue with a fine probe, the team created a three dimensional image, which showed the familiar torus shape of the red blood cell.
The team further confirmed their findings by conducting a follow-up study with a method that allows one to recognize molecules. They took a Raman spectroscopy sample of the tissue by illuminating it with a laser beam, and found that the shapes of the cells corresponded with those of the present day samples of human blood cells. In addition, whilst the team was examining the arrowhead wound, they found the tissue fibrin, a protein involved with blood clotting.
“Because fibrin is present in fresh wounds and then degrades, the theory that Ötzi died some days after he had been injured by the arrow, as had once been mooted, can no longer be upheld,” Zink says.
For more information about Ötzi, visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology’s webpage.