Bronze Age Brain: 4000-Year-Old Human Cerebral Tissue Preserved by ‘Corpse Wax’

Bronze Age Brain: 4000-Year-Old Human Cerebral Tissue Preserved by ‘Corpse Wax’

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Tissue from a human Bronze Age brain has been preserved for 4000 years. Archaeologists hope that similar specimens can be found to discover more information on health conditions in the prehistoric past.

The Bronze age brain discovered in Seyitömer Höyük, Turkey is one of the oldest in the world. Having access to the preserved brain allows scientists to find out about any diseases or pathological conditions the individual may have had, such as tumors or hemorrhaging, and also discover what happened in the person’s last hours of life.

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The Bronze Age brain tissue was found at Seyitömer Höyük, Turkey. ( Open Context )

There are few brains that have been preserved as long as this one because brain tissue is rich in enzymes and cells break down rapidly after death. In rare cases, decomposition is slowed. For example, brain tissue of an Inca child sacrificed 500 years ago has also been found in a preserved state. The survival of the tissue in that case was due to her body having been frozen on top of an Andean mountain.

The brain unearthed in Turkey likely survived the years due to natural disasters. It is believed that the settlement suffered an earthquake which buried the inhabitants. Then a fire spread, consuming any oxygen in the rubble and boiling the brain in its fluid. A decrease in moisture and oxygen following these events would have further prevented the decomposition of the brain tissue.

Superior view of fronto-temporal structures of the brain. ( classicsnewsneedsandnow)

Moreover, the soil where the brain was found was high in potassium, magnesium, and aluminum. This triggered the human tissue to create a substance called adipocere, or ‘corpse wax’, which preserves soft tissue.

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Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has examined medieval brain tissue and said most archaeologists don’t look for it as they doubt it will survive the passing years. Nonetheless, “The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable. If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”

Heslington Brain, discovered to be more than 2,500 years old. ( York Archaeological Trust )

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