An open wound on a corpse is like a time machine – especially if the corpse is 5300 years old. Meet the most famous 5300 year old, his body preserved in as pristine a condition as this much time will allow – Oetzi. He was found in the Italian Alps, on the Oetz valley (and thus his name) in 1991 and since then has aroused considerable interest because of his well-preserved features.
Scientists have been able to figure out that Oetzi died from a spear wound. He probably died soon after the strike and not from an infection from the wound. An axe and scattered arrow fragments lay around him. Some have even reconstructed Oetzi’s face, giving him a grizzly look of a stern, but aging hunter. Brown eyes were a figment of imagination, but they look good on him. He is the ultimate prehistoric fashion model.
So well preserved is Oetzi that scientists have even been able to extract valuable DNA samples from whatever remains of his skin. Nothing useful could be concluded. They have also extracted mitochondrial DNA from his intestines. Mitochondria are small bodies living within cells. They contain their own DNA, apart from the nuclear DNA. Hereditary features are caused by nuclear DNA – the ‘familiar one’ – while the mitochondrial DNA remains inactive. It can only be passed down through the maternal line.
The DNA gave some tantalizing hints as to where Oetzi might have hailed from or what his biological ancestry might have been. Scientists speculate that he might be East European, but they aren’t very sure. Among other things, scientists speculate that he might have been infertile!
The latest in the Oetzi story features his blood. Blood cells degrade rather rapidly, but Oetzi even has blood preserved underneath his skin. This marks the oldest red blood cells ever recorded! Researchers at the Center for Smart Interfaces, University of Darmstadt, Germany, found that atomic force microscopy revealed minute amounts of blood in thin slices of tissue.
Atomic force microscopy relies on mapping out the atomic topography of a surface using a tiny atomically sharp metal tip. The concave shape of red blood cells clearly shows up (figure above)!
But something is anomalous – the fibrin levels are low. Fibrin helps blood to clot. It is found in very high quantities in fresh wounds. The fact that the blood will be preserved but not the fibrin seems far-fetched, so maybe Oetzi died slowly, due to a bleed or an infection rather than directly from a spear wound.
The dead do speak.