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His DNA has been decoded; samples from his stomach and intestines have allowed us to reconstruct his very last meal. The circumstances of his violent death appear to have been explained. However, what had, at least thus far, eluded the scientists, was identifying any traces of blood in Ítzi, the 5,000 year old glacier mummy. Examination of his aorta had yielded no results. Yet recently, a team of scientists from Italy and Germany, using nanotechnology, succeeded in locating red blood cells in Ítzi's wounds, thereby discovering the oldest traces of blood to have been found anywhere in the world.
"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." This is how Albert Zink, Head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy, Bozen-Bolzano (EURAC) explains the starting point for the investigations which he undertook with Marek Janko and Robert Stark, materials scientists at the Center of Smart Interfaces at Darmstadt Technical University. Even in modern forensic medicine it has so far been almost impossible to determine how long a trace of blood had been present at a crime scene. Scientists Zink, Janko and Stark are convinced that the nanotechnological methods which they tested out on Ítzi's blood to analyse the microstructure of blood cells and minute blood clots might possibly lead to a break-through in this area.
The team of scientists used an atomic force microscope to investigate thin tissue sections from the wound where the arrow entered Ítzi's back and from the laceration on his right hand. This nanotechnology instrument scans the surface of the tissue sections using a very fine probe. As the probe moves over the surface, sensors measure every tiny deflection of the probe, line by line and point by point, building up a three-dimensional image of the surface. What emerged was an image of red blood cells with the classic "doughnut shape", exactly as we find them in healthy people today. "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 a second analytical method, the so-called Raman spectroscopy method", report Marek Janko and Robert Stark, who, with Albert Zink, are also members of the Center for NanoSciences in Munich. In Raman spectroscopy the tissue sample is illuminated by a laser beam and analysis of the spectrum of the scattered light allows one to identify various molecules. According to the scientists, the images derived from this process corresponded to present-day samples of human blood.
Whilst examining the wound at the point where the arrow entered the body, the team of scientists also identified fibrin, a protein involved in the clotting of blood. "Because fibrin is present in fresh wounds and then degrades, the theory that Ítzi died straight after he had been injured by the arrow, as had once been mooted, and not some days after, can no longer be upheld," explains Albert Zink.
The team has just published the results of this research in the "Journal of the Royal Society Interface".
Full bibliographic informationJanko, Marek, Stark, Robert, Zink, Albert: Preservation of 5300-year-old red blood cells in the Iceman; Journal of The Royal Society Interface (2012) Published 02 May 2012, 0:01 am (UTC)
About European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano
The EURAC is an institute for applied research and further education, subdivided in six research fields: Applied Linguistics, Minorities and Autonomies, Sustainable Development, Management and Corporate Culture, Life Science as well as Biomedicine.
These six very different research departments share a common denominator: flexible interdisciplinary co-operation between the researchers' of diverse scientific and geographic backgrounds.
At the EURAC, linguists and computer scientists work together to compile digital learning dictionaries, legal experts from various countries explore models of autonomy and federalism to ensure the protection of minorities in the enlarging European Union, while ecologists develop future scenarios for the development of the Alpine region together with economists.
In 2004 the EURAC has created EURAC education, the new centre for the specialised training. EURAC education organises masters, courses and seminars for managers and high-level employees.
The EURAC sees variety, competition and transparency as its guiding principles: its work and results are readily accessible to the public and are communicated through various media.
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