This Human Brain Tissue Survived Intact For 2,600 Years, And We May Finally Know How
Thousands of years ago, near what is today the British village of Heslington, a man’s body started to decompose. Flesh and organs became mud. Hair turned to dust. In the end, bones remained, and, mysteriously, a small piece of his brain.
After months of patiently investigating the tissue’s proteins, an international team of researchers finally has clues explaining this remarkable instance of preservation, and it could help us better understand how healthy (and unhealthy) brains actually work.
The 2008 discovery of the Heslington brain – one of the oldest specimens of human neural tissue ever to be uncovered in the UK – left researchers with a challenging puzzle to solve.
Within moments of a typical death, brain tissue starts to decompose. Compared with other body parts, this decay is especially rapid, with various proteins going to work demolishing cellular infrastructure.
So when archaeologists looked inside a mud-caked skull pulled from an Iron Age dig site, they were understandably shocked to see the withered remains of what looked like a chunk of recognisable human brain.
According to carbon dating, the middle-aged man breathed his last breath somewhere between 673 and 482 BCE, most likely as the result of a fractured spine – the kind you get after a hanging.
Exactly who he was, or why he died, probably won’t ever be known. Sometime after his speculated execution, though, the victim’s severed head was thrown into a pit, where it was encased in a fine grain sediment.