Scientific study of the remains of a first-century CE victim of Mount Vesuvius have revealed the preserved brain cells of a young man. The 20-something was killed and immediately buried by a cloud of hot ash in 79 CE. Now, revolutionary technologies are giving scientists a unique opportunity to peek inside his head.
The victim was first discovered in the 1960s, during excavations at Herculaneum (a town at the base of Vesuvius). The man was found lying face-down on a bed in a building that many have identified as the College of the Augustales. The building would have served as a place where people engaged in the worship of the emperor Augustus. Imperial cult, as it is known, was a common and widespread religious practice during the imperial period that solidified political ties as well as religious allegiances.
It is not clear if the man was at the College of the Augustales when the eruption struck or if he sought shelter there during the eruption, but some have suggested that he was the building’s caretaker and was trapped there during the chaos. Clearly, any final request for assistance from the deified Augustus went unanswered.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius turned Herculaneum, as well as nearby Oplontis, Stabiae, and, of course, Pompeii into a macabre Roman time capsule. The thick flood-like layer of scalding ash covered artwork, human remains, pets, brothels, graffiti, household wares, two-story buildings, and even bread were preserved in a carbonized state. Though many had time to flee, scholars estimate that at the time of the eruption roughly 12,000 people were living in Pompeii and a similar number lived elsewhere in the Bay of Naples. Approximately 16,000 people died as a result of the eruption.
In 2018 Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University Federico II of Naples, spotted a glasslike black substance within the skull. Together with his team he set about trying to deduce what the shiny substance actually was. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine published earlier this year Petrone hypothesized that the shiny material was brain matter that had been caused by the vitrification of the victim’s brain.
His latest piece, published in PLOS One, endeavors to cement this theory further. Using scanning electron microscopy to aide examination of the sample, the scientists identified tiny neuron-like structures. The spherical structures, Petrone and his team argue, appear to be vitrified brain and stem cells. X-ray analysis of the material confirmed that material was organic. The presence of proteins found in the human brain further convinced Petrone and his team that they were looking at extraordinarily well-preserved 2000-year-old brain tissue. He told me, “The finding of a complex network of neurons and axons … gave us unequivocal confirmation that the vitrified remains found at Herculaneum were human brain.” The concentration of proteins and position of the sample (it was found on the back of the skull) lead the team to conclude that they discovered part of the victim’s spinal cord and cerebellum.
Petrone, who has also received attention for his controversial theory that some ancient inhabitants of Herculaneum were “vaporized” by the hot ash cloud, says that the research on the brain and spinal cord cells is only just beginning. He told The Daily Beast, “The finding of a 2000-year-old well preserved vitrified brain never occurred before” and that the research published so far is “just the tip of the iceberg.” Guido Giordano, a volcanologist at Roma Tre University, who also participated in the research and publication, agreed. Giordano told CNN that “This [discovery] opens up the room for studies of these ancient people that have never been possible.”
As Stephanie Pappas notes, “the preservation of brain tissue is rare in archaeology.” This is due to the fact that soft tissues start to rot shortly after death. The ancient Egyptians, who worked hard to preserve certain bodily organs, discarded the brain as part of the mummification process. Some brain matter has been accidentally preserved elsewhere: the shrunken remains of a 2600 year old brain were found in Northern England and some Mammoth brains have been preserved in sub-freezing temperatures, but discoveries like these are exceptionally rare.
In the past studies of skeletal remains from the eruption of Vesuvius by anthropologist Sarah Bisel have revealed that people in Herculaneum had unexpectedly healthy teeth (Bisel suggests these may be due to the fluoride in the water). Other studies, Kristina Killgrove has written, have revealed a high incidence of osteoarthritis among inhabitants, evidence of respiratory infections, and a diet high in seafood, meat, and carbohydrates.
Though Petrone has no plans for cloning the ancient man (sadly you have to put those ethics-free Jurassic Park style zombie fantasies out of your head), he told me that he intends to continue identifying neuronal structures and to compare them to modern cerebral tissue. An Italian team of archaeologists, biologists, neurogeneticists, and mathematicians will continue to research the brain matter.
The discovery is important, he added, because it “helps us better understand the different phases of the 79 AD eruption and its effects of people and structures.” The discovery has the potential to unlock the temperature of the eruption as well as further illuminate our understanding of ancient genetics. Calling Vesuvius “the most dangerous volcano in the world,” Petrone said that this work could play a role in helping authorities to evaluate the risks that future eruptions might pose to the more than three million inhabitants of the region today.