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Preserved Brain Tissue Found in Victim of Ancient Vesuvius Eruption, Scientists Report

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Herculaneum, as it appears today.

Herculaneum, as it appears today.
Image: Pier Paolo Petrone

The catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago is famous for preserving its many victims in volcanic ash. New research suggests this preservation extends to the cellular level, owing to the apparent discovery of neurons in a victim whose brain was turned to glass during the eruption.

New research published today in PLOS One describes the discovery of neuronal tissue in vitrified brain and spinal cord remains belonging to a victim of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, which blew its stack in 79 CE.

“The discovery of brain tissue in ancient human remains is an unusual event,” Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at University Federico II in Italy and the lead author of the new study, said in a press release. “But what is extremely rare is the integral preservation of neuronal structures of a 2,000-year-old central nervous system, in our case at an unprecedented resolution.”

The room in which the preserved brain was found.

The room in which the preserved brain was found.
Image: Pier Paolo Petrone

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated several ancient Roman cities, including Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, and Oplontis. Following a series of earthquakes, the volcano tossed a massive column of molten rock, hot ash, and pumice into the sky. Inhabitants of nearby settlements quickly succumbed to pyroclastic flows—fast-moving avalanches of superheated material. An estimated 2,000 people were killed during the eruption.

The falling volcanic ash resulted in rapid burials and the preservation of many victims, including the famous preservations at Pompeii. In some cases, however, the intense heat caused victims’ skulls to explode, as temperatures suddenly spiked to 932 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius). In Herculaneum, some inhabitants sought shelter in nearby boat chambers, where they were baked alive.

Research published earlier