Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic
Three-dimensional atomic force microscope image of a red blood cell found in the Iceman's arrow wound. Image courtesy Marek Janko.
Published May 2, 2012
The world's oldest known blood cells have been found on Ötzi the Iceman, according to the latest research on the 5,300-year-old mummy.
What's more, the discovery proves that the Stone Age homicide victim had a quick, if not painless, death.
Ötzi has been the subject of extensive postmortem investigations ever since his corpse was discovered in an Alpine glacier on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. (Read "Iceman Autopsy" in National Geographic magazine.)
No blood residue had previously been detected, however, despite various studies detailing his violent death due to an arrow shot and other injuries.
"There were no [blood] traces found, even when they opened some arteries, so it was thought maybe the blood had not preserved and had completely degraded, or that he lost too much blood because of the arrow injury" on his back, said team member Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy.
For the new investigation, scientists traced Ötzi's wound areas—the arrow injury and a cut on his right hand—with a pioneering nano-size probe.
Each minute movement of the probe was recorded with a laser, "so you get a three-dimensional image of the sample in a very tiny scale," Zink explained.
The scans revealed classic "doughnut shape" red blood cells, the team reported Wednesday in the journal Interface.
While past studies have suggested evidence for prehistoric blood on Stone Age tools and other artifacts, "you can never really be sure, because you can see structures which are quite similar to red blood cells" such as pollen grains or bacteria, Zink commented.
To confirm they were indeed dealing with human blood cells, the researchers illuminated the wounds with a laser. The wavelengths of the scattered light revealed the substances' molecular makeup.
"We got very typical samples for blood, like for the [blood protein] hemoglobin," he said.
The new finding "really is the oldest clear evidence for red blood cells."
The new nanotechnology, allied with an atomic force microscope, also uncovered traces of fibrin, a blood-clotting agent—evidence that the Iceman suffered a mercifully quick demise.
"Fibrin is formed immediately when you get a wound, within a few minutes, but then it disappears"—in a living, functioning body, anyway, Zink said. "Finding fibrin in the arrow wound is confirmation that Ötzi actually died very quickly after the arrowshot."
"There were still some people arguing that he survived the arrow maybe a few hours or a few days, but this was definitely not true," he added. (Also see National Geographic magazine's "Last Hours of the Iceman.")
The relatively new techniques used in the study may in the future assist in the investigation of modern-day homicides.
Since old blood cells are more elastic than fresh samples, the same blood-analysis techniques could become useful at crime scenes, Zink said.
"If the blood is dry, forensic science really has no good method for determining the age of blood spots ... They cannot say if it is a day, a week, or a month old," he said.
"If you can record with this technology little differences in the elasticity of the structure, then you can maybe determine the age of the blood spot."
. . . AND ALSO - ACCORDING TO MY RESEARCH EFFORTS ( THE MOUNTAIN TOP VS THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN ) AGES OF MOUNTAIN STUDIES - HAVE REVEALED THAT ( ANYTHING ) THAT SETTLES ON THE TOP OF A MOUNTAIN ( THAT'S SUBJECTS TO BREAK UP - INTO PIECES ) WILL TAKE ABOUT ONE HUNDRED YEARS - TO DRIFT TO THE BOTTOM OF ( SAID ) MOUNTAIN ( QUESTION PLEASE: WHY DIDN'T PARTS & PIECES OF THE ICEMAN ) DRIFT TO THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN ( ANSWERS - IF YOU WILL: THE ICEMAN DID NOT DRIFT ) TO THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN ( BECAUSE ) AFTER DEATH & LONGEVITY ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP ( HIS BODY SETTLED IN A PAN ) AND THE PAN - WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A FORK IN THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN ( IF - SOMEWHERE BACK OVER THE CENTURIES ) THE MOUNTAIN HAD ( CRACKED OPEN - FOR EXAMPLE ) THEN A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING - COULD HAVE DRIFTED TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS MOUNTAIN ( BUT THE MOUNTAIN HELD FAST & STURDY / 5,300/YRS ) WHEN THE HIKERS FOUND THE BODY OF THE ICEMAN ( THE PAN & THE FORK ) WERE BASICALLY - IN THE SAME SHAPE THAT THEY WERE - WHEN THE ICEMAN DIED ( AS THE RESULTS OF A SCRIMMAGE ) THAT LED TO HIS DEATH ( AND ALSO - THE BODY OF THE ICEMAN ) WAS ALL IN ONE PIECE ( BECAUSE OF THE WEATHER CONDITIONS ) FOR THE MOST PART - THIS MOUNTAIN WAS COVERED WITH SNOW & ICE ( BASICALLY - ALL OF THE TIME ) WEATHER CHANGES LIKE ( SAND STORMS / WARM TEMPERATURES / ETC ) CHANGED THE WEATHER CONDITIONS OF THIS MOUNTAIN ( WE CAN NOT LEAVE THE HIKERS ) OUT OF THE EQUATION ( SAND STORMS CAME & SAND STORMS WENT / 5,300/YRS ) AND I DO BELIEVE THAT THE ICEMAN SURFACED ( TIME & TIME - AGAIN ) BUT - IT WAS THE HIKERS CONCEPT ( THAT WAS MISSING ) ONCE ALL OF THE COMPONENTS CAME TOGETHER ( ONLY THEN ) DID THE ICEMAN COME TO US ( FROM HIS FROZEN ENVIRON ) AND WHAT IS SO VERY AMAZING - IS THUS ( OUR LORD & SAVIOR ( JESUS CHRIST ) HIMSELF ) - ( THE CHRIST CHILD ) CAN BE FOUND ON THE ( TIMELINE OF THE ICEMAN ) SOMETHING IS SPEAKING TO US - HERE . . .
Feed the World
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
Latest From Nat Geo
The moon disappeared for the second time in 2014 in a total eclipse seen early Wednesday morning in the Americas, India, and Central Asia.
Abandoned 28 years ago, the land around the failed Chernobyl power plant now teems with tourists.