Friday, October 4, 2013

Boiled brain

Because brain tissue is full of enzymes that cause it to decay rapidly, it is not often found in excavated skeletons. In those rare conditions where it is preserved, it allows paleopathologists to discern tumors, hemorrhaging, and degenerative diseases and other neurological conditions. Brain tissue has been found in the skulls of 500-year-old Inca child sacrifices, a 2,600-year-old Iron Age man, and now 4 Bronze Age skeletons in western Turkey. While detrimental to those humans, conditions were just right for the preservation of their brain tissue over the past 4,000 years. Meriç Altinoz of Haliç University in Istanbul and his colleagues believe that an earthquake flattened the settlement of Seyitömer Höyük, burying its residents. As a subsequent fire spread, it consumed any oxygen in the rubble and boiled the brains in their own fluids. In the dry and airless environment, they reacted with the soil to form adipocere, thus preserving them to this day. Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich examined the specimens and points out, "The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable. If you publish cases like this, [archaeologists] will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too."

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