Ancient brain

In 2008 archaeologists dug up a 2,800-year-old skull in Yorkshire, and discovered an extremely well preserved brain still inside.

F.J. Gall and G. Spurzheim / CC BY

Internal organs don’t last very long past the death of their owner. The fifth “stage of death” involves organs turning to goo, and the brain is pretty high up that list because it has a lot of fat – and fat both retains heat better and has more fluid, which powers that putrefaction. (Brains tend to go right after the stomach, intestines, and liver, but before the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Why do the stomach and intestines go first? Because the body’s own gut bacteria join the party, eating us from the inside out.) Suffice it to say that you don’t see many old brains lying around unless they’re sitting in a mad scientist’s laboratory.

The Heslington Brain is an exception. Dug up from an Iron Age pit near York, a few crucial conditions led to its surprising preservation. The soil in which it was buried doesn’t have a lot of oxygen; the brain’s owner was hanged and then decapitated, so the gut bacteria never got as far north as the brain; the fat in the brain has been replaced by something else – we’re still not quite sure what it has been replaced by, but apparently it has made the Heslington brain feel a lot like tofu. Gross.

This brain is about one third of its original size, but retains a lot of its original structure: it still has folds and lobes, despite being 2,800 years old. The genetic origin of its owner is unusual as well. The brain comes from a haplogroup branch that has been seen in the Middle East and Italy but not before in Britain. So was this an unfortunate visitor to Great Britain who fell in with the wrong crowd, or were the residents of the area genetically different from those of today? In any case, the Heslington Brain is apparently the oldest brain in Eurasia, and the best preserved ancient brain in the world.

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