Human Brains Boiled 4,000 Years Ago Discovered In Bronze Age Skeletons

By Philip Ross on October 3, 2013 10:05 PM EDT

human brain
Four boiled human brains (not pictured) were discovered in Turkey after 4,000 years underground. (Photo: Creative Commons)

What might sound like a chapter from a Hannibal Lecter biography actually happened thousands of years ago in southeastern Europe. Scientists in Turkey recently found 4,000-year-old brain tissue inside four Bronze Age skeletons. The brains were boiled in their own skulls, preserving them nearly intact until they were discovered between 2006 and 2010. 

According to The Verge, the ancient brains were unearthed at an old Bronze Age settlement in western Turkey called Seyitömer Höyük near present-day Kütahya, a city surrounded by agricultural lands and high mountains. The brains were still in their skulls, and were surprisingly well preserved, making them some of the oldest brains ever found. 

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But scientists needed a few years to analyze the brains and figure out exactly how they were spared from decomposition. Their analysis was published last month in the Journal of Comparative Biology.

So how did the brains maintain their brainy quality? 

New Scientists reports that Meriç Altinoz of Haliç University in Istanbul, Turkey, and his team of researchers believe the 4,000-year-old settlement where the brains were discovered was destroyed by an earthquake. They think after the earthquake leveled the settlement, a fire broke out, burning alive the people who were trapped inside. 

The four skeletons were found in a layer of charred sediment where pieces of burnt wood were also recovered. The fire that consumed the settlement would've sucked up all the oxygen. The brains likely cooked inside the skulls, boiling in their own juices. 

The lack of oxygen coupled with the dried out brains would have kept the brain tissue from breaking down.  

The second factor that kept the brains all in one piece for thousands of years was the soil. Researchers say the minerals in the soil reacted with the fatty acids in the brain tissue to create something called adipocere, or "corpse wax," which held the shape of the brains. From the study:

Analysis of the brain, teeth and bone and also of the surrounding soil revealed high levels of potassium, magnesium, aluminum and boron, which are compatible with the famous role of Kütahya in tile production with its soil containing high level of alkalines and tile-glazing boron. Fatty acid chromatography revealed simultaneous saturation of fats and protection of fragile unsaturated fatty acids consistent with soil-presence of both pro-oxidant and anti-oxidant trace metals.

In a black-and-white photo accompanying the article, one of the brains looks like the charred remains of a small tree stump. But you can actually still make out some of the details of the cerebral cortex. 

"The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable," Frank Rühli, at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, told New Scientist. According to Rühli, most archaeologists don't even bother looking for brain tissue because it's usualy assumed that the brain, like other soft body tissue, has completely disintegrated. 

Findings like this are extremely rare, but do happen from time to time. One other recent discovery of preserved human tissue was that of a 500-year-old Inca child that had been sacrificed during a ritual. 

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