Ötzi’s Blood

Replicas of Ötzi's clothesAccording to an article published on May 1 in LiveScience, ‘Iceman’ Mummy Holds World’s Oldest Blood Cells. Said “iceman” is of course the naturally mummified Ötzi, who died around 3250 BC and was frozen in the Alps on the Italian/Austrian border.

But young Earth creationists claim a much older record holder: Mary Higby Schweitzer’s T. rex red blood cells. His article for Wednesday, thus, asked Are Iceman Blood Cells Really the Oldest?

Because I have covered this so many times – and because I’m a little late – I’ll be brief. First, while the dinosaur blood cells are rather contentious (as we shall see) the Ötzi ones do no seem to be, hence calling them the oldest is hardly the greatest crime every committed by the science media.

Secondly, the underlying issue here is that of soft tissues. According to creationists, soft tissues can’t survive more than thousands of years and therefore if we find them in a fossil it cannot be more than a few thousand years old (therefore the Earth is young). The problem is that we don’t really know how long soft tissues should last – an experiment in the lab may not properly reflect the complexities of the real world. So even if the tissues were the real deal – which in some other cases, at least, they might be – they do not necessary prove the young Earth. I mean, why should our tried and tested models of the decay of atoms be wrong, but the little we know about tissue decay be rock solid Truth? It is a mystery.

Finally, does the T. rex fossil contain preserved red blood cells? Perhaps not – or at least not to the extent that creationists would want. A talk.origins faq from 2004 (Dino-blood and the Young Earth) quotes the first print column authored by Schweitzer after the discovery as saying:

Perhaps the mysterious structures were, at best, derived from blood, modified over the millennia by geological processes.

An updated faq (Dino Blood Redux), after a 2005 paper on the subject was published, quotes the final paragraph of that paper as conceeding that:

Whether preservation is strictly morphological and the result of some kind of unknown geochemical replacement process or whether it extends to the subcellular and molecular levels is uncertain.

This would not be particularly helpful for Thomas’ cause.

So we can conclude that a) these may not be actual blood cells, b) even if they were they wouldn’t necessarily prove a young Earth, and c) the headlines are (surprisingly enough) entirely justified.

6 thoughts on “Ötzi’s Blood

  1. “Of course, both the T. rex and hadrosaur are widely believed to be tens of millions of years old. Any red blood cells should have long since disintegrated.”

    Thomas seems to know how old these cells could not have been. Was he there?

  2. I do recall having a brief read of one of the original papers last time a creationist challenged me with it. They apparently also applied this technique to other dinosaur remains and a few did also show to have the red blood cell type structures.

    Also, are you aware of any updates to the story since 2005? I can’t help but thinking someone might have done a bit more research into it. After all, it is the only currently feasible path to creating Jurassic Park.

    • There was a paper somewhere about the possibility that they might be bacterial residue of some kind, and there has been back-and-forth on this other things since (see the relevant tags on this post). I’ll go look up what I’ve already written on this stuff tomorrow. It wouldn’t be infinitely unlikely that some example of genuine dinosaur soft tissue exists somewhere, but finds will always be contentious.

    • Oh yes. But if you want Jurassic park, amber still seems to be the way to go. Amazing stuff, preservation wise (in certain rare circumstances, that is). You just need to get the DNA in there somehow.

  3. Why does creationism depend on deeply hidden evidence on the fringes of scientific discovery, whereas, creationists reject well-established scientific evidence that is contrary to the assumptions of creationism?

    Seems as if they are clutching at straws while swallowing the camel.


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