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Researchers Find Intact Brain Cells of a Man Who Died in the Mount Vesuvius Eruption

Ann Moises

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  • Researchers in Italy found intact brain cells of a man who died when Mt. Vesuvius erupted nearly 2,000 years ago.
  • This amazing breakthrough occurred in 2018, when forensic anthropologist saw ‘some glassy material shining from within the skull.’
  • They concluded that the man’s brain vitrified due to the intense heat and subsequent rapid cooling of the volcanic ash.

In Italy, a team of researchers found intact brain cells of a man who died 2,000 years ago. The remains of the man was initially discovered in the 1960s in Herculeneum. He was around 25 years old at the time of his death.

Herculeneum was an ancient city entombed in ash when the most dangerous volcano in the world—Mt. Vesuvius— erupted in AD 79. Mt. Vesuvius has been infamously known for destroying the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. It also laid the wealthy town of Herculeneum to waste.

Experts unearthed the young man’s skeleton lying face down on a wooden bed buried by volcanic ash.
He was in a small room believed to be the caretaker’s bed chamber in Collegium Augustalium. It was believed to be the headquarters of a cult that worshipped Emperor Augustus.
Then, in 2018, Pier Paolo Petrone noticed ‘some glassy material shining from within the skull’ while working near the skeleton.
Photo: Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone

In an interview with the Guardian, Petrone said:

“I noticed something shining inside the head. This material was preserved exclusively in the victim’s skull, thus it had to be the vitrified remains of the brain. But it had to be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II who led the research, said the project began thereafter.

Earlier this year, he and his colleagues revealed in an article published by the New England Journal of Medicine that the victim’s brain vitrified.

“The brain exposed to the hot volcanic ash must first have liquefied and then immediately turned into a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash deposit,” he said.

Following further analysis, the team found intact cells in the vitrified brain.

The cells were “incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else,” CNN quoted Petrone.

This was such a remarkable discovery since cerebral tissue normally decomposes or saponify, yet the victim’s had turned to glass due to immense heat.
Photo: The New England Journal of Medicine

They likewise discovered preserved nerve cells in the victim’s spinal cord similar to the vitrified brain. The recent findings were published in PLOS One, wrote CNN.

Evidence of a charred wood next to the man’s skeletal remains revealed that the place reached over 500 degrees Celcius or 932 degrees Fahrenheit after the volcano erupted, Guido Giordano told the media company.

Giordano is a volcanologist at Roma Tre University who worked on the study. He described the recent findings as a blessing to researchers because the “perfectness of preservation” found in vitrification was “totally unprecedented.”

“This opens up the room for studies of these ancient people that have never been possible,” Giordano said.

According to Petrone, they want to learn more about the vitrification process. This includes knowing the exact temperatures the people were exposed to and the cooling rate of the volcanic ash. He says this is “crucial for the evaluation of the risk by the relevant authorities in the event of a possible future eruption of Vesuvius.”

Furthermore, the team hopes to analyze proteins from the remains and their related genes.

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