Oldest Human Blood Cells Found in 'Iceman Mummy'

By Florence Madenga on May 2, 2012 2:14 PM EDT

5,300-Year-Old Ice Mummy
Researchers take a sample from Ötzi, a 5,300 year old mummy that may have the earliest known and best preserved human blood cells. (Photo: EURAC / Samadelli Marco)

Scientists have now found what they believe is are the oldest blood sample, scraped from 5,300 year old Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was uncovered by trekkers in the Italian Alps in 1991. A study released by the Journal of The Royal Society Interface on Wednesday about  the Iceman confirmed that red blood cells in Ötzi's body were preserved in his tissue samples for at least 5,000 years. Experts verified the molecular composition of the blood capsule using an atomic force microscope and very advanced nanotechnology.

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"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," Albert Zink of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy, told the Guardian. Ötzi's body is kept at the institute at a temperature of minus 6 degrees Celsius (about 21.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

The discovery may prove to be very useful for forensics on crime scene investigations.

"Forensic scientists today have trouble telling if crime scene blood is days or months old, but by studying the elasticity of 5,000-year-old blood we hope to be able to make a real contribution to the understanding of blood aging," Zink said.

The Iceman was so well preserved that biological anthropologists have been studying him since he was uncovered about two decades ago. Scientists can estimate his age (he was about 45 at the time of his death), what he ate on the day of his demise (a meal including herb bread and red deer meat), as well as a likely cause of death (an arrow hit to the shoulder that pierced an artery as well as an early case of Lyme disease). According to CBS, Zink and other colleagues responsible for spotting the red blood cells obtained the tissue samples form the Iceman's arrow wound and another wound found on his hand.

Experts also reportedly found fibrin, a fibrous protein involved in the process of blood clotting.

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