Scientists from Italy and Germany announced in early May 2012 that they have found the world’s oldest known human blood in a 5,300-year-old mummy. Materials scientist Marek Janko of the Center of Smart Interfaces at Darmstadt Technical University, Germany was on the science team, and he told EarthSky:
Our main finding is that blood cells can be preserved for 5,300 years and even detected after such a long time.
These researchers used cutting-edge nanotechnology including atomic force microscopy and light-based Raman spectroscopy to verify the shape and molecular composition of the blood. The scientists published their results on May 2, 2012 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
The scientists analyzed what’s called the Iceman, an exquisitely preserved mummy discovered frozen in a glacier. Two hikers in the Ötztal Alps along the border of Austria and Italy came upon the mummy in 1991. Since then, scientists have analyzed the Iceman – who has been nicknamed Oetzi – for clues about how he lived and died. They now believe, for example, that Oetzi died after being shot in the back by an arrow. Despite his icy preservation, no blood had been found in The Iceman – until now. This recent research team examined the areas near two wounds, one on the Iceman’s right hand and one in his back where an arrowhead was lodged. Janko told EarthSky:
By analyzing the red blood cells which we find, either on his hand wound or within the arrowhead wound, we could find the characteristic hemoglobin spectrum. Additionally, in the case of the red blood cells from the arrowhead wound at his back, we could determine another protein, fibrin, characteristic of the coagulation of blood, and the formation of a blood clot.
In other words, the fibrin found on the Iceman indicated the arrow wound on his back was relatively fresh and most likely the fatal wound according to Janko. This forms exciting new evidence for the weapon in what is the oldest known crime scene known to science. Janko said there are other good reasons to study mummies like the Iceman:
Those remains can really give us some information about our ancestors, not only telling us what people used to eat in former times but even for example what kind of diseases they had. And those information can even make it possible to create medicines against different kinds of disease by knowing how they evolved.
Bottom line: Scientists have found the world’s oldest known blood in a 5,300-year-old mummy, known as the Iceman. Earlier scientists had determined that the Iceman likely died from an arrow in the back. These scientists, including materials scientist Marek Janko of the Center of Smart Interfaces at Darmstadt Technical University, Germany, were able to isolate blood from the Iceman’s ancient wounds. Janko told EarthSky that analyzing the ancient remains of the Iceman might help scientists today develop new medicines by studying how diseases evolve.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.