Old blood: Iceman bleeds for Raman

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  • Published: Jun 1, 2012
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Raman
thumbnail image: Old blood: Iceman bleeds for Raman

The first cut is the deepest

A team of scientists in Europe has used nanotechnology and Raman spectroscopy to locate red blood cells in the wounds of the "iceman" Ötzi. The work not only represents the discovery of the oldest traces of human blood anywhere in the world but puts paid to the theory that he survived for several days after being injured by an arrow.

Ötzi the Iceman, also known as Similaun Man and Man from Hauslabjoch, is a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived about 5,300 years ago. The remains were found in September 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, near the Similaun mountain and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy, hence his various names. He is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and has over the last two decades given science an unprecedented insight into the ancient Chalcolithic Europeans. His body and belongings are displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy, but he is still the subject of much scientific scrutiny.

Indeed, Ötzi's DNA has been decoded in detail we even know from samples extracted from his gut what he last ate before he met his untimely and violent fate. Scientists know from examination that he had an arrow wound in his shoulder and he presumably bled to death from this injury. What we did not have until now were any proven traces of Ötzi's blood. Scientists had examined his aorta - the main artery out of the heart - to no avail. But scientists from Italy and Germany have now exploited nanotechnology and spectroscopy to take another close look at his wounds and have plucked from them evidence of the oldest traces of blood known.

"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," explains Albert Zink, Head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy. This premise was thus the starting point for investigations carried out in collaboration with materials scientists Marek Janko and Robert Stark from the Center of Smart Interfaces at Darmstadt Technical University. Even state-of-the-art forensics cannot tell easily how long a trace of blood has been present at a modern crime scene, let alone one at which the crime occurred one thousand years before The Pyramids were built. The team is convinced that their analysis with atomic force microscopy allowed them to reveal the microstructure of blood cells and minute blood clots from thin tissue sections from Ötzi's arrow wound and the laceration on his hand.

Not a survivor

The AFM scans revealed the familiar "doughnut-without-a-hole shape" of red blood corpuscles. "To be absolutely sure that we were not dealing with pollen, bacteria or even a negative imprint of a blood cell, but indeed with actual blood cells, we used Raman spectroscopy ", the team says. The spectra correlated well with present-day samples of human blood. The team was also able to identify the clotting protein fibrin at the entry wound. "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 asserts.

Interestingly, even though the red blood cells examined were somewhat degraded, the study showed that they had a healthy morphology, there was thus no evidence that Ötzi had any blood disorder caused by RBC membrane defects, such as sickle-cell disease, elliptocytosis or spherocytosis.

"Preservation of 5300 year old red blood cells in the Iceman", J Roy Soc Interfac, 2012, online; DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0174

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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