Four Thousand Year Old Brain

Archeologists and paleontologists and other such people who dig in the dirt to learn about the past consider themselves lucky if they manage to find a complete skeleton of a long extinct animal or a reasonably well preserved foundation of a long destroyed house. Imagine how lucky one of them would feel when finding a perfectly preserved four thousand year old human brain. I found this story in the National Post to be worth reading.

It may look like a burnt log, but it’s actually one of the oldest-known human brains, preserved for 4,000 years after being “scorched and boiled in its own juices.”

“The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable,” Frank Rühli at the University of Zurich, Switzerland told New Scientist, adding that most archaeologists simply don’t even look for brain matter. “”If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”

The brain was found in Seyitömer Höyük, a bronze-age settlement in Turkey, yet analysis of the brain showed that the man had actually died in the mountains.

“In 2010, an archeological excavation of a Bronze Age layer in a tumulus [burial mound] near the Western Anatolia city Kütahya revealed fire affected regions with burnt human skeletons and charred wooden objects,” the team behind the find wrote in their paper on the brain. “Inside of the cracked skulls, undecomposed brains were discernible.”

Scientists are speculating that an earthquake shook the ancient human settlement, followed by a fire that cooked the corpse and the brain inside.

The heat would have boiled the brain, wicking out all of the oxygen and moisture and aiding in its preservation.

The chemical makeup of the soil — rich in potassium, magnesium and aluminium — was the final part of the equation, as it reacted with the fatty brain tissue to form “corpse wax” which preserved the tissue.

“Neural tissues are quite distinct, thus having ancient samples would help to better understand adaptations but also [the] evolution of neuropathologies,” Rühli told The Huffington Post. “I think this is very important medically and has huge diagnostic potential.”

“If we want to learn more about the history of neurological disorders, we need to have tissue like this,” Rühli elaborated to New Scientist.

I hope they can find more such specimens. It would be very interesting to compare brain structures from various periods. What I would really like them to find, though, would be a more or less intact sample of a Neanderthal brain. I am fascinated by Neanderthals because while they are almost identical in appearance to Homo Sapiens, though apparently more muscular, there are tantalizing clues from the artifacts they left behind and studies of their genome that suggest their brains were somewhat different and they thought differently than modern humans. Short of doing a sort of Jurassic Park revival, which would probably be unethical even if it were possible, an even partially intact brain might allow us to how much like us they were.

 

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