World's Oldest Blood Cells Preserved in Ötzi the Iceman

Atomic force microscope images of Ötzi’s red blood cells / M. Janko et al., Royal Society Interface 2012
Janet Fang 09 May 2015, 15:43

Ötzi the Iceman is a 5,300-year-old glacier mummy discovered back in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps near the Italian-Austrian border. After exhaustive examination, researchers revealed that the exceptionally well preserved corpse belonged to a 45-year-old male who likely died of an arrow to the left shoulder. IFLScience has previously reported that he had 61 tattoos, was infected with Lyme disease, and DNA on his body from an oral pathogen suggests he had gum disease. There’s one very cool thing that we haven’t mentioned yet: Ötzi’s red blood cells were preserved too, making them the world's oldest blood cells ever discovered. The work was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface back in 2012. 

When researchers first looked at Ötzi, they didn’t find any blood and assumed that the cells had disintegrated over time within the corpse. It wasn’t until they tried using x-ray and CT scanning that the first hints of blood residue were detected. Hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying blood metalloprotein, was discovered in a skin wound on Ötzi’s right hand, and hematomas were found around the arrowhead, which was lodged between the rib cage and the left scapula (or shoulder blade). But until now, no intact blood cells have been found. 

So, a trio from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München examined a biopsy sample from the stab trauma to the right hand and from the arrowhead wound using spectroscopy and an atomic force microscope, which creates 3D images of the incredibly small samples (pictured above). This time, they successfully identified red blood cells and could even approximate their size and shape. The structure and elasticity of red blood cells can change as a result of disease. And while these ancient RBCs were about the same size and classic donut shape of healthy (but dried) ones, their data indicated a decrease in hemoglobin, a sign that the cells were degraded. 

Furthermore, the team detected the presence of a blood-clotting agent. "Fibrin is formed immediately when you get a wound, within a few minutes, but then it disappears,” in a living, functioning body, anyway, according to study author Albert Zink, who also heads the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman. He tells National Geographic: "Finding fibrin in the arrow wound is confirmation that Ötzi actually died very quickly after the arrowshot.” 

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