Mass "A" of the Heslington Brain
|Size||(Mass "A") 70 millimetres (2.8 in) ×
60 millimetres (2.4 in) ×
30 millimetres (1.2 in)
|Discovered||By York Archaeological Trust in August 2008|
The Heslington Brain is a 2,600-year-old human brain found inside a skull buried in a pit in Heslington, Yorkshire, in England. It is the oldest preserved brain ever found in Europe or Asia, and is believed to be the best-preserved ancient brain in the world. The skull was discovered during an archaeological dig commissioned by the University of York on the site of its new campus on the outskirts of the city of York. The area was found to have been the site of well-developed permanent habitation between 2,000–3,000 years before the present day. A number of possibly ritualistic objects were found to have been deposited in several pits, including the skull, which had belonged to a man probably in his 30s. He had been hanged before being decapitated with a knife and his skull appears to have been buried immediately. The rest of the body was missing. Although it is not known why he was killed, it is possible that it may have been a human sacrifice or ritual murder.
The brain was found while the skull was being cleaned. It had survived despite the rest of the tissue on the skull having disappeared long ago. After being extracted at York Hospital, the brain was subjected to a range of medical and forensic examinations which found that it was remarkably intact, though it had shrunk to only about 20% of its original size. It showed few signs of decay, though most of its original material had been replaced by an as yet unidentified organic compound, due to chemical changes during burial. According to the archaeologists and scientists who have examined it, the brain has a "resilient, tofu-like texture". It is not clear why the Heslington brain survived, although the presence of a wet, anoxic environment underground seems to have been an essential factor, and research is still ongoing to shed light on how the local soil conditions may have contributed to its preservation.
The site where the brain was discovered is about 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) south-east of York city centre on the eastern edge of Heslington village. It is situated partly on the ridge of an ancient glacial moraine and partly in the basin of the Vale of York. Until the construction of the Heslington East campus of the University of York in 2009, the site was used as agricultural land.
Survey and excavation work, commissioned by the university, was carried out on the site from 2003. It culminated in a full-scale excavation carried out in 2007–08 by York Archaeological Trust in an area of just over 8 hectares (20 acres). The archaeologists found that the landscape had been inhabited and farmed for thousands of years. The remains of prehistoric fields, buildings and trackways were discovered, dating from the Bronze Age through to the middle of the Iron Age, with traces of earlier activity as far back as the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. During the Iron Age, the area appears to have been the site of a permanent settlement. The excavators found a number of circular features, which they interpreted as the remains of roundhouses. The inhabitants seem to have relocated during the Roman period to a site further up the ridge, leaving the area of the Iron Age settlement to revert to fields.
Around a dozen pits were found on the site and possibly ritualistic objects were found in a number of them. Some pits had been pierced with a single stake, while a number of pits included "burned" cobbles of a local type of stone. The headless body of a red deer had been deposited in a drainage channel and a red deer antler was found in an Iron Age ditch. In one waterlogged pit, a human skull – with the jawbone and the first two vertebrae still attached – was discovered in August 2008, lying face-down at the bottom of the pit. The find was seen as unusual but its true importance was not discovered until after it had been transported, within a block of soil, to the Finds Laboratory of the York Archaeological Trust. As Finds officer Rachel Cubitt was cleaning it, she noticed that something was loose inside the skull. She peered through its base and saw that it contained a "yellow substance". She said later that it "jogged my memory of a university lecture on the rare survival of ancient brain tissue ... we gave the skull special conservation treatment as a result and sought expert medical opinion." The skull and its contents were put into cold storage and were examined using a variety of medical and autopsy techniques.
Analysis of the skull and brain
The skull was found to be that of a man aged between 26–45 years old at the time of death, likely in his mid-30s. He had died from traumatic spondylolisthesis – in other words the fracturing of his vertebrae, most likely caused by hanging. Very shortly afterwards his head and upper vertebrae had been severed from his body, almost surgically, using a thin-bladed knife. Although there is evidence from other sites of "trophy heads" being used in Iron Age societies, it appears that this head was almost immediately deposited in the pit and buried in fine-grained wet sediment. The reason for the killing is unknown, but from the archaeological context it is possible that it may have had a ritual or sacrificial aspect. Radiocarbon dating found that the man had died between 673–482 BC. His DNA was found to belong to haplogroup J1d, today only seen in a few individuals from Tuscany and the Near East. Examples of J1d have not previously been identified in Britain; it may have been present in the past but could since have been lost through genetic drift.
CT scanning was carried out at York Hospital, where the skull was opened and the contents were removed and forensically examined. The interior of the skull was found to contain several large fragments of brain mixed with sediment. The brain had shrunk to about 20% of its original size, but many anatomical features were still readily identifiable. It was remarkably well-preserved and had few signs of decay other than the presence of a few bacterial spores. One of the fragments clearly showed the neural folds of a cerebral lobe. The preservation of the brain has been attributed to the waterlogged, anoxic soil in which the head was buried, though only the brain, and not the rest of the tissue, survived burial; only scanty traces of other tissue remain on the rest of the skull. There is no sign of the head having been deliberately conserved (for instance through desiccation or smoking) or otherwise being subjected to preservation processes, such as mummification, before burial.
In contrast to other preserved brains in skeletonised bodies, no adipocere – a fatty compound formed through the process of decay – was detected in the Heslington brain, probably because the head was severed from the body before the latter (which has not been found) had started to decay. The brain had undergone significant chemical changes during its burial, notably a major decrease in the amount of proteins and lipids and their replacement by fatty acids and other substances produced as degradation products. Much of the original substance of the brain has been replaced by a high molecular weight, long-chain, hydrocarbon material that is as yet unidentified. According to the archaeologists who have examined it, the brain is "odourless", with a "smooth surface" and a "resilient, tofu-like texture."
The discovery of such a well-preserved brain is all the more remarkable considering the relative fragility of human brains following death. Even when placed in a chilled environment in a mortuary, brains quickly dissolve into liquid. The high fat content of the brain means that it is usually the first major organ to deteriorate. The brains of the crew of the American Civil War submarine HL Hunley were recovered along with their skeletonised bodies in 2000, and brains were found in the wreck of the English warship Mary Rose, but archaeologists found that they "liquefied within a matter of minutes" unless preserved immediately in formalin. Brains found in terrestrial environments have tended to be better preserved, as the surviving material tends to have a higher proportion of hydrophobic (water-repellent) matter than in a fresh brain. There appear to be a number of routes by which brains have been preserved, though a common factor appears to be the existence of a wet, anoxic environment. The presence of such an environment is thought to have been responsible for a similar but less complete preservation of brain matter discovered in the 1990s during the construction of a new magistrates' court in Hull.
In the case of the Heslington brain, its preservation may have been aided by the immediate severing of the skull from the body. The human body tends to decay from the inside out, consumed by a post-mortem swarm of bacteria from the gut which spread around the body via blood from the alimentary tract. In this particular case, the head was severed from the alimentary tract and drained of blood, so the intestinal bacteria did not have an opportunity to contaminate it. The precise mechanism by which the Heslington brain was preserved is unclear, however; in a bid to shed light on this question, researchers have buried a number of pigs' heads in and around the campus to see what happens to them.
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