A pre-hispanic head

Raffaella Bianucci, Maria Jeziorska, Rudy Lallo, Grazia Mattutino, Massimo Massimelli, Genevieve Phillips, Otto Appenzeller

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This report on a male head revealed biologic rhythms, as gleaned from hydrogen isotope ratios in hair, consustent with a South-American origin and Atomic Mass Spectrometry rediocarbon dating (AMS) compatible with the last pre-Hispanic period (1418-1491 AD, 95.4% probability). Biopsies showed exceptionally well-preserved tissues. The hair contained high levels of toxic elements (lead, arsenic and mercury) incompatible with life. There was no evidence for lead deposition in bone consistent with post-mortem accumulation of this toxic elements in the hair. We propose that the high content of metals in hair was the results of metabolic activity of bacteria leading to metal complexation in extra cellular polymeric substance (EPS). This is a recognized protective mechanism for bacteria that thrive in toxic environments. This mechanism may account for the tissues preservation and gives a hint at soil composition where the head was presumably buried. Our results have implications for forensic toxicology which has, hitherto, relied on hair analyses as one means to reconstruct pre-mortem metabolism and for detecting toxic elements accumulated during life. Our finding also has implications for other archaeological specimens where similar circumstances may distort the results of toxicological studies. © 2008 Bianucci et al.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere2053
    JournalPLoS ONE
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2008


    • Adult
    • metabolism: Blood Vessels
    • metabolism: Epithelium
    • Fossils
    • chemistry: Hair
    • Head
    • Hispanic Americans
    • History, 15th Century
    • Humans
    • Hydrogen
    • Immunohistochemistry
    • Male
    • Mass Spectrometry
    • metabolism: Muscles
    • diagnosis: Poisoning
    • cytology: Skin
    • ultrastructure: Skull
    • South America


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