Intact cells found in dead man’s skull in Vesuvius eruption

Intact brain cells from almost 2,000 years ago found 0:52

(CNN) – A team of researchers in Italy found intact brain cells from a young man who died almost 2,000 years ago in the eruption of Vesuvius.

The discovery was made when experts studied remains first discovered in the 1960s in Herculaneum, a city buried by ash during the volcanic eruption of AD 79.

The victim, who was found face down on a wooden bed in a building believed to have been dedicated to the cult of Emperor Augustus, was around 25 years old at the time of his death, according to investigators.

Part of the college of the Augustales, the building in Herculaneum where the young man & # 39; s remains were found in the 1960s.

Part of the building in Herculaneum, where the remains of the young man were found in the sixties.

Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II who led the investigation, told CNN that the project began when he saw “some glassy material glowing from inside the skull” while working near the skeleton in 2018.

In an article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, Petrone and his colleagues revealed that this shiny appearance was caused by vitrification of the victim’s brain due to intense heat followed by rapid cooling.

SIGHT: Volcano turns a victim’s brain into glass

Speaking about this process, Petrone said: “The brain exposed to the hot volcanic ash must first have liquefied. And then immediately become a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash deposit. ‘

After further analysis that included the use of an electron microscope, the team found cells in the vitrified brain. They were “incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else,” according to Petrone.

The researchers also found intact nerve cells in the spinal cord, which, like the brain, became vitrified.

The latest findings were published in the American journal PLOS One.

Findings about the eruption of Vesuvius

Guido Giordano, a volcanologist at Roma Tre University who worked on the study, told CNN that the charred wood found next to the skeleton allowed researchers to conclude that the site reached a temperature of more than 500 degrees Celsius after the eruption.

Referring to the latest findings, Giordano said that the “perfection of preservation” in vitrification was “totally unprecedented.” And he said it was a boon to the researchers.

“This opens the space for studies of these ancient peoples that have never been possible,” he said.

The team of researchers, archaeologists, biologists, forensics, neurogeneticists and mathematicians from Naples, Milan and Rome will continue to study the remains.

They want to learn more about the vitrification process, including the exact temperatures the victims were exposed to. As well as the rate of cooling of volcanic ash. They also hope to analyze the proteins in the remains and their related genes, according to Petrone.

The first task is “crucial for the risk assessment by the competent authorities in the event of a possible future eruption of Vesuvius. It is the most dangerous volcano in the world, which stalks more than 3 million inhabitants of Naples and its surroundings ”, said Petrone.