Brain Cells of Vesuvius Victim That Turned into Glass Found Intact 2,000 Years After Volcanic Eruption
A team of researchers in Italy has discovered brain cells from a young man who died when Vesuvius erupted, approx 2,000 years ago. The cells were discovered among remains uncovered during the 1960s in Herculaneum.
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The Vesuvius disaster still remains the most horrific volcanic eruption in recorded human history. Thousands of years after the disaster, we are still discovering elements from the troubled past.
A team of researchers in Italy has discovered brain cells from a young man who died when Vesuvius erupted, approx 2,000 years ago. The cells were discovered among remains uncovered during the 1960s in Herculaneum. The once-thriving city was suddenly buried by volcanic ash in AD 79, arresting all life where it stood.
The young man, when discovered, was lying face down on an ancient wooden bed. His location, researchers believe, was a building devoted to deifying Emperor Augustus. King worship not being entirely unheard of in that era. The temple-man is believed to have been approximately 25 years old at the time of death.
Pier Paolo Petrone led the research who is a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II. Speaking to CNN, he explained how the whole project started. He noticed some “glassy material shining from within the skull,” as he worked on the skeleton back in 2018.
Later, he published a paper to reveal his astonishing findings in the journal PLOS ONE.
The brain appears to have gone vitrification as it was intensely heated (hot volcanic eruption ash) and rapidly cooled (buried under cooling ash).
It is important to note that volcanic ash consists of pulverised rock and infinitesimal glass particles as a result of the explosion. The vitrification process is how glass is made. “The brain exposed to the hot volcanic ash must first have liquefied and then immediately turned into a glassy material by the rapid cooling of the volcanic ash deposit,” Petrone said.
Using electron microscopes, the team discovered cells in the vitrified brain. They described them as “incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else.”
Apart from “brain-glass,” there were intact nerve cells (in the spinal cord). These had been vitrified as well. Based on charred wood remains surrounding the human remains, it is estimated that the temperature may have risen to 500 degrees Celsius.
The team believes this finding is extremely useful to uncover what the conditions might have been during the time. If proteins can be extracted, it can even help in the genetic study of the remains.