24 July 2024
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Ancient Human Brains Preservation: A Surprising Discovery

Soft tissue preservation in the geological record is a rare occurrence, with the survival of entire organs being particularly unusual. The spontaneous preservation of the brain in the absence of other soft tissues has historically been considered a unique phenomenon. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford challenges these misconceptions and sheds new light on the preservation of ancient human brains.

Challenging Traditional Views: The University of Oxford Study

Led by postgraduate researcher Alexandra Morton-Hayward, the research team compiled a new archive of preserved human brains that revealed a surprising abundance of nervous tissues in archaeological sites. This study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, represents the largest and most comprehensive analysis of preserved human brains to date, drawing on sources from across six continents.

The team identified over 4,000 preserved human brains from more than two hundred sources, some dating back 12,000 years. These brains were found in diverse environments, from the depths of an Iranian salt mine to the shores of a lakebed in Stone Age Sweden. The variety of individuals in whom these brains were preserved, ranging from Egyptian royalty to Arctic explorers, highlights the broad scope of the research.

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Insights into Preservation Mechanisms and Environmental Conditions

Analyzing the environmental conditions associated with brain preservation, the researchers found patterns related to dehydration, freezing, saponification, and tanning. Surprisingly, over 1,300 of the preserved brains were the only soft tissues found, prompting questions about why the brain may persist when other organs decay. Some of the oldest brains in the archive, dating back to the last Ice Age, suggest unique mechanisms of preservation involving molecular crosslinking and metal complexation.

Lead author Morton-Hayward noted that while the brain is known to decompose quickly after death, the study’s findings indicate specific circumstances under which it can survive. The presence of ancient biomolecules in these archaeological brains offers exciting opportunities for further research into our ancestors’ lives and deaths.

Potential Insights and Future Research Directions

The archive of 4,400 preserved human brains described in the study presents a significant opportunity for bioarchaeologists to gain insights into ancient health, disease, and the evolution of human cognition and behavior. Despite the vast potential of these preserved brains, less than 1% have been investigated for ancient biomolecules, highlighting a rich area for future exploration.

Co-author Dr. Ross Anderson emphasized the importance of these ancient brains in providing unique insights into the early evolution of our species, including the roles of ancient diseases. The untapped wealth of information held within these preserved brains offers a glimpse into the past that could revolutionize our understanding of human history and evolution.

Links to additional Resources:

1. www.nature.com 2. www.sciencemag.org 3. www.pnas.org

Related Wikipedia Articles

Topics: Human brain preservation, Ancient diseases, Bioarchaeology

Brain size
The size of the brain is a frequent topic of study within the fields of anatomy, biological anthropology, animal science and evolution. Measuring brain size and cranial capacity is relevant both to humans and other animals, and can be done by weight or volume via MRI scans, by skull volume,...
Read more: Brain size

History of medicine
The history of medicine is both a study of medicine throughout history as well as a multidisciplinary field of study that seeks to explore and understand medical practices, both past and present, throughout human societies. The history of medicine is the study and documentation of the evolution of medical treatments,...
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Bioarchaeology
Bioarchaeology (osteoarchaeology, osteology or palaeo-osteology) in Europe describes the study of biological remains from archaeological sites. In the United States it is the scientific study of human remains from archaeological sites. The term was minted by British archaeologist Grahame Clark who, in 1972, defined it as the study of animal...
Read more: Bioarchaeology

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