The Use of Immunological Techniques in the Analysis of Archaeological Materials - a Response to Eisele; with Report of Studies at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

By Newman, Margaret E.; Ceri, Howard et al. | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Use of Immunological Techniques in the Analysis of Archaeological Materials - a Response to Eisele; with Report of Studies at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump


Newman, Margaret E., Ceri, Howard, Kooyman, Brian, Antiquity


Eisele et al. in ANTIQUITY (1995) reported discouraging results from experiments to see if blood traces reliably survive on stone tools. Here, issue is taken with aspects of that study, and new research is reported from the celebrated buffalo-jump at Head-Smashed-In, southern Alberta. The great bone-bed there, consisting almost exclusively of bison bones, gives rare opportunity to study remains of a known single species under the genuine conditions of an archaeological site, rather than a supposing simulation.

This paper responds to Eisele (1994) and Eisele et al. (1995), which question the preservation of protein residues on archaeological lithic tools and the detection and characterization of such proteins, if they do indeed survive.

Background: presentation and characterization of ancient bio-molecules

'All living organisms contain the essential biopolymers: nucleic acids, proteins and carbohydrates', although 'the molecular integrity of protein molecules may be lost during fossilization through hydrolysis of the peptide links, resulting in progressively shorter chains of [Alpha]-amino acid units'. Identification of these shorter peptide units by immunological techniques is, however, still possible (Eglinton & Logan 1991: 315). Proteins have been recovered from shells of planktonic foraminifera dating between 2000 and 4000 years old (Robbins & Brew 1990), from dinosaur bones (Miller & Wyckoff 1968) and dinosaur eggs (Voss-Foucart 1968), from frozen mammoth dated c. 40,000 BP (Prager et al. 1980), and from 1500-year-old bones (Gurtler et al. 1981). Although proteins may not be preserved in their tertiary form, linear epitopes are generally preserved; they can be identified and characterized through Western blot and other immunological methods (Abass et al. 1994: 47-8).

The use of immunological methods in the analysis of blood and other body fluids dates to the turn of the century, following the establishment of immunology as a discipline in the late 1800s by European scientists studying infectious and contagious diseases. Bordet, in 1898, was one of the first researchers to discover one of the properties of antiserum: that when the antiserum raised against an animal was added to the serum of that animal, 'the latter first became opaque, and that after a short time a flocculent precipitate fell' (Nuttall 1901a: 788). The discovery of precipitating antibodies led to further research into their use, not only in clinical medicine but also in medico-legal work. The use of the precipitin test in forensic medicine is generally credited to Uhlenhuth (1901), one of the first to discover that an antiserum to ox blood reacted only with ox and no other animal (Nuttall 1901b).

Immunological techniques, first used in medico-legal work in the early 1900s, have continued to play an integral role in forensic medicine until the recent introduction of DNA testing. Many of the problems and sources of error experienced by Nuttall and other early searchers persist today: the strength and reliability of antisera, the pH of the medium, bacterial contamination, the difficulty of re-solubilizing dried blood, and the fact that blood heated over 100 [degrees] C will not give a positive reaction (Nuttall 2904). However, Nuttall also noted: 'The fact that dried bloods give reactions after the lapse of a considerable time, months, or even years has been fully established by Uhlenhuth and confirmed by others' (1904: 120). Our present knowledge of the immune system and antigen/antibody reactions confirms what these early researchers discovered.

Eisele (1994) refers to the antigen/antibody reaction as analogous to a lack and key. A key will fit into several locks but can only turn in the lack to which it belongs. The same is true of antibody/antigen reactions (Marchalonis 1982: 3) (emphasis ours):

If, for example, a mouse is injected under the proper conditions . . . with human erythrocytes, or a virus, or a particular bacterium or a human serum protein such as human albumin, antibodies will be produced which react with characteristic antigenic determinants found on the particular molecule or cell infected. …

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