Scientists recover the world's oldest human blood cells from Ötzi the Iceman

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He was found with an arrow in his shoulder and a stab wound in his hand, but when Ötzi the Iceman was first discovered in 1991, scientists were unable to recover so much as a drop of blood from his otherwise intact body.

For 5,300 years, Ötzi's remains had been preserved by the biting cold of the Alps, but not even being frozen in a glacier could prevent the Iceman's blood from decomposing in his vessels. So German researchers Marek Janko, Robert Stark, and Albert Zink decided to look for blood residue around his hand and shoulder wounds, instead.


Using a high-resolution visualization method called atomic force microscopy, the researchers managed to discover the oldest intact red blood cells ever recorded. (The image featured here shows the 5,300-year-old RBCs, which exhihbit the biconcave discoid structure (aka doughnut-shape) characteristic of the cell type. The researchers also identified traces of fibrin — a protein involved in the body's clotting process — which adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests Ötzi did not die immediately after sustaining his wounds.


What's really cool about this research is how it stands to benefit fields like forensics. "Detection of blood components was of major interest because it could give new perspectives on the lives and fates of our ancestors," write the researchers. "Blood can indicate the general health status of an individual and it can be analysed to detect pathological conditions or to provide valuable information in forensic crime scene investigations."

Who would have guessed that the Ötztal Alps would make such a great body farm?

The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Journal of the Royal Society Interface (no subscription required).


Ötzi's RBCs via Janko et al.