The find looks like a common shiny black stone, but Italian anthropologists have discovered that it is a brain fragment from a victim of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius almost two thousand years ago.
The discovery, revealed in the New England Journal of Medicine, is an archaeological rarity found in the ruins of Herculaneum, an ancient Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, located not far from the most famous site of Pompeii, in the Bay of Naples.
Experts, who have been studying the remains of a population wiped out by lava, ash and poisonous gases for decades, were intrigued by this glass-like stone inside a broken skull.
"In October 2018, I examined human remains and I saw something shiny in a cranial box in pieces", tells AFP one of the researchers, Pier Paolo Petrone, forensic anthropologist of the 'University of Naples Federico II. "I was sure it was a human brain."
Analyzes by Piero Pucci of the Naples Advanced Biotechnology Center (CEIGNE) confirmed his intuition, revealing elements of protein and fatty acids from hair and brain tissue.
The brain piece could belong to the guardian of a place of worship dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. Her charred body was found on a wooden bed in the 1960s.
Researchers estimate that the ambient temperature rose to 520 degrees Celsius during the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius, a level that burns fat and tissue. A rapid drop in temperature would then have vitrified human remains such as the brain.
"If we manage to heat the material, to liquefy it, we may be able to extract the DNA from it," said Pier Paolo Petrone.
The scientist said that researchers have already managed to find, thanks to their DNA, family ties between seven women as well as the Near East origin of three men, probably slaves, whose remains had been discovered in Herculaneum.
© 2020 AFP