SCIENCE
08/18/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Prehistoric Brain, Exceptionally Preserved, Found In Waterlogged Pit (PHOTO)

A "prehistoric human brain" has been found "pickled" in a bog, Discovery News reports.

The intact brain, which was found in a human skull estimated to be about 2,500 to 2,600 years old, was discovered by scientists in a "waterlogged pit" in the United Kingdom in 2008.

The find was the subject of a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

According to the authors of the study, the brain -- which was found in Heslington, Yorkshire -- is the oldest known intact human brain from Europe and Asia.

Though originally published in 2011, the study made a resurgence this week on the social news site Reddit, where many users commented on the wonder of the preserved organ.

prehistoric brain found

It is believed to be one of the most exceptionally preserved ancient brains in the world.

After it was discovered in 2008, a multi-disciplinary team of scientists came together to "investigate the brain and the circumstances of its preservation."

The team discovered that the brain had likely belonged to a man who had died a rather "traumatic" death.

"The early Iron Age skull belonged to a man, probably in his thirties," lead author Sonia O'Connor told Discovery News. "Cause of death is rarely possible to determine in archaeological remains, but in this case, damage to the neck vertebrae is consistent with a hanging."

According to the study, the man's head was probably then carefully decapitated using a small blade.

Gruesome as it may sound, the team of researchers say the man's violent death was fortuitous for his brain.

Laser imaging, chemical analysis and other examinations showed that the brain had "naturally preserved over the millennia." The scientists found "no trace of microbial activity, bacterial or fungal" and described the brain tissue as being "odorless," with a "smooth surface" and a "resilient, tofu-like texture."

Researchers believe the man's head with the brain still in it was probably buried quite rapidly after dismemberment in a waterlogged pit. The new environment, free from oxygen and cool in temperature, reduced the chance of microbial infection and slowed decomposition considerably.

"My feeling is the individual would have died from the fracture and the head was removed and deposited in the pit," study co-author Jo Buckberry told National Geographic.

Though other soft human body parts may not preserve well under wet conditions, O'Connor told Discovery News that waterlogged environments appear to be perfect for keeping brains "fresh," "due to the very different chemistry of brain tissue."

"Such preservation is testimony to the amazing preservation in wet sites. Truly amazing things come out of the muck," added Glen Doran, chair of the anthropology department at Florida State University, commenting on the study.

However, despite these plausible explanations, the study's authors say that this still doesn't completely explain why or how the brain managed to remain so well-preserved over the years.

"It's curious, because normally it is one of those organs that degrade quickly," study co-author Matthew Collins told National Geographic. "There must be something going on internally that we don't understand."

Nonetheless, researchers noted in the study that this type of preservation of brains is not new:

Perhaps the earliest published accounts of this type of preservation come from pre-Revolution France. Between December 1785 and October 1787, the crowded and fetid cemetery of St Innocents’ Church was cleared as a public health measure. Contemporary accounts report that brain matter was found in large numbers of otherwise skeletalized bodies even where the skull was ruptured by soil pressure.

[Significantly] even at the earliest stages of decomposition, the brain always showed less deterioration than other soft tissues and was often the last to survive… These brains had recognizable hemispheres and convolutions, filling about a quarter to a third of the cranial cavity, even after 20 or 30 years burial. These brain masses were pulpy, soft and ‘fusible' between the fingers, although some were firmer, more solid and looked more friable.

Here, the researchers were referring to the ability of a solid substance to be reduced to smaller pieces -- but the image of fried (and pulpy) ancient brains probably won't be leaving us anytime soon.

In a similar story this week, a Siberian mummy with intricate tattoos still visible on her skin has been revealed in Russia.

h/t: Reddit

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