Back in 2008 in Britain researchers dug from the soil something they did not expect to find. At first, they thought they had only found a human skull, but surprisingly it was much more than just that. When they took a closer look, they noticed a yellow substance inside of it.
It happened to be the oldest human brain that has ever been discovered- 2,600 years old.
But how could a brain be so well preserved and how had it endured the harsh conditions of time for such a long time? Well, the archaeologists have an answer for that mystery: thanks to the mud. It had provided oxygen-free environment that didn’t let the brain decompose.
This fascinating discovery was made when the York Archaeological Trust was commissioned by the University of York to carry out a planned expansion of the campus. This is where they found the human skull (with its jaw and two vertebrae attached). The soil there had been cultivated since 300 BC. One of the members of the trust, Rachel Cubitt, shares the thoughts she had during the experience. While she was cleaning the newly discovered object, she noticed something that was unlike anything she had ever seen. “I peered through the hole at the base of the skull to investigate and to my surprise saw a quantity of bright yellow spongy material,” she shares.
Finding preserved brains from ancient times is an extremely rare occurrence. The reason for this is that the brain’s tissue is fatty and is easily absorbed by the microbes in the soil. Sonia O’Connor from the University of Bradford shares that what is even more curious is that the preservation of brain tissue when there are no other organ tissue remains, is even more unusual.
She is one of the scientists who confirmed that the discovered object is a real human brain for sure.
Philip Duffey who scanned the brain at the York District Hospital shares his excitement for the discovery and says: “There is something unusual in the way the brain has been treated, or something that it’s been exposed to that has preserved the shape of it.”
In the years after the discovery, numerous researchers have studied the brain. It had been found that the skull belonged to a person who lived 2,600 years ago. This was assumed by examining a sample of the preserved jawbone. What the shape of the skull and the teeth showed was that they belonged to a man of age between 26 and 45 years. It has also been assumed that the reason for his death was a collision with an object on the neck and decapitation with a small sharp knife.
It is presumed that the head had been buried in a pit of wet and clay-rich ground almost instantly after the decapitation. In order for it to decompose, there had to be water, oxygen, and an appropriate temperature for the process to start. But even if one of these conditions is absent, the rotting cannot start. Thanks to the sealed and oxygen-free conditions that the fine-grained sediment had provided, the brain remained well preserved. The hair, skin and flesh that covered the skull had rotted as they normally do. But the proteins and fats of the brain tissue must have stuck together and formed some complex molecules that helped the brain endure this whole time. It has shrunk in size, but its features remained preserved.