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Human Brains Have Been Mysteriously Preserved For Thousands Of Years

maximus otter

Recovering policeman
Aug 9, 2001
Intact human brains 12,000 years old or more have been found in unexpected places such as shipwrecks and waterlogged graves, but it is unclear what preserved them.

A study of human brains that have been naturally preserved for hundreds or thousands of years has identified 1300 cases where the organs have survived even when all other soft tissues have decomposed. Some of these brains are more than 12,000 years old.

“Brains of this type, where they’re the only soft tissue preserved, have been found in sunken shipwrecks and in waterlogged graves where the bones are just floating,” says Alexandra Morton-Hayward at the University of Oxford. “It’s really, really strange.”


Alexandra Morton-Hayward holding a 1000-year-old preserved brain Graham Poulter

Morton-Hayward…and her colleagues have done the first ever systematic study of the phenomenon. They have put together a database of more than 4400 preserved human brains found all over the world.

In most cases, the brain preservation could be explained by known processes. For instance, the brains of Incan human sacrifices entombed on top of a volcano in South America around AD 1450 were freeze-dried along with the bodies. But the known processes preserve all soft tissues, not just brains. They don’t explain the 1300 cases where brains are the only soft tissue to survive.

Morton-Hayward’s working hypothesis is that, in certain circumstances, substances such as iron can catalyse the formation of cross-links between proteins and lipids, forming more stable molecules that resist degradation. The nature of the proteins and lipids found in brains, or their ratio, might be the key.


maximus otter