Heslington’s brain: characteristics of this historical anomaly

Heslington’s brain, found in Yorkshire, England, is the oldest surviving human brain.. This discovery is not only a breakthrough for archeology, but also for medicine, allowing research on ancient genetic tissues never seen before.

In this article, we will look at the characteristics of the Heslington brain, to whom it belonged, where and when it was discovered, the possible causes of its state of preservation and its importance for different scientific fields.

    What is the Heslington Brain?

    The Heslington brain is the oldest surviving human brain, dating back 2,600 years, particularly to the Iron Age.. It takes its name from the place where it was found, in the town of Heslington, in the historic county of Yorkshire in the north of England.

    This brain belonged to a man in his thirties, who met a tragic end when he was brutally punched on the head, hanged and ultimately beheaded with a knife. It’s unclear exactly what prompted him to find this terrible ending, however. it is believed to be due to a ritual or human sacrifice, given the way he was killed and his head was quickly buried.

      How did the discovery go?

      The skull was found in Heslington in 2008 during archaeological digs conducted by York University. There were found the remains of cultivated fields and an ancient population believed to have belonged to the Iron Age.

      Alongside other tombs and ritual objects, a human skull was found which preserved the lower jaw and the first two cervical vertebrae.. Although at first it was not given more importance, when archaeologist Rachel Cubitt cleaned it up, she noticed that inside was a yellow substance that had not been considered before. ; for this reason, he decided that it would be better to preserve the skull in a special way and consult with medical experts given the strangeness of the find.

      One of the reasons the brain was so well preserved was that the head was buried right after it was beheaded.. In this way, the moist atmosphere of the soil and the mud that enveloped the skull kept the brain cool and prevented it from coming into contact with the air, which would prevent batteries from forming and they would initiate the process of decomposition.

      It also helped cuts and injuries of the skull, as it was easier for humic acid, the main component of humic substances, to filter and access the brain, thus providing the characteristics of the environment and preservation. already mentioned.

        Brain Analysis and Research in Heslington

        Considering the good condition of his brain, he had never found one so old in these conditions; this gave the possibility to analyze it and to make various tests. It is very difficult to find tissues preserved for so many years, because usually the corpse begins to decompose after 36 hours of death and between 5 and 10 years the skeletonization process takes place.

        So, study of the find revealed that the skull belonged to a middle-aged man, around 30 years old, who had been brutally murdered between the 7th and 5th centuries BC.

        By performing the computed tomography test, which allows you to get images of different sections of the brain, it was possible to observe the typical gray and white matter that forms the brain, as well as the furrows, convolutions and twists that form its structure.. So, although they were mixed with sediment and reduced to 20% in size, the main brain structures and anatomical features were still visible.

        But … What factors have made it so well preserved after so many years? As we know a key factor was the immediate preservation of the brain in a humid place and without much air, oxygen. This fact has also been observed in other discoveries of the not so old brain.

        Another important finding was that no residual adipocytes were observed, a type of fat that appears in corpses when they start to break down. This event was tried to explain alluding to the separation of the head and the body, causing that the decomposition of the body did not affect the brain.

        As for the disunity of the head and the body, it should also be noted that most of the decomposition of the corpse is due to a group of bacteria from the gastrointestinal tract. On this occasion, when the head detached itself from the body, bacteria could not reach it, thus helping to maintain the brain.

        Another aspect was also discovered which had never been observed before; It has been found that the main substances that make up the brain under normal conditions, such as proteins and fats, they had been replaced by hydrocarbon molecules with a longer chain and higher molecular weight; it had made him more resistant.

        Recently, on January 8, 2020, University College London-based neurologist Axel Petzold published a new study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, where he presented a molecular perspective-focused Heslington brain study with a special interest in proteins, responsible for connecting body tissues.

        The research has been intense and long, studying and observing how brain proteins in particular develop and evolve. Laboratory work bore fruit and more than 800 proteins were found and identified; it was amazing to see that most of these proteins were still in good condition, and could even generate an immune response.

        In this way, it was pointed out that the greater resistance and capacity for persistence was due in part to the fact that they had come together, forming bundles which made them more compact and at the same time more stable than they were. are in normal situations in the brains of living people. This is how Petzold deduced that this state of protein compaction allowed them to last longer, also making them more resistant to the brain breakdown produced after death.

        This discovery was transcendent not only for archeology but also in the field of medicine., as brain structures were discovered whose presence allowed Heslington’s brain material to be preserved in perfect condition. These two structures are two types of brain fibers called neurofilaments and glial fibrillary acidic proteins, whose work together gives more consistency and protects neurons and astrocytes, a type of glial cell.

        It has also been observed that the decomposition autolysis process occurred in the outer parts of gray matter and not in the inner parts of white matter where it is usually found. For this reason, since there was no internal brain element to explain it, it was concluded that an external substance most likely entered the brain before or after the victim’s death, something auspicious . the death that took place.

        Likewise, this question remains an enigma and is not confirmed; still other possibilities are mixed up, as if it was the same man who had an uncatalogued disease that caused the brain to remain in that state.

        This way we think he was a set of determined and specific conditions and factors, both before and after death, those who allowed such conservation.

        Although more research is needed, this finding could help better understand the brain aging process and, in particular, neurodegenerative diseases in which proteins are involved, as would be the case with certain dementias. Likewise, these findings could also help researchers obtain information from other ancient tissues from which the genetic material, DNA, could not be obtained.

        Bibliographical references

        • ABC science (2020) How the decapitated piece of brain survived intact 2,600 years.
        • Ruiz, D. (2020) The piece of brain of a decapitated man that has survived over 2,600 years. The Avant-garde.
        • BBC Newsround (2020) The human brain of the ancient skull has survived 2,600 years and scientists may know why.

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