About 2,600 years ago, a man was beheaded near Yorkshire, England. It is not known why. His head was soon buried in clay-rich soil. When researchers discovered the skull in 2008, they were surprised to find that the Yorkshire man’s brain tissue had survived for thousands of years, even retaining folds and grooves (pictured). Now, researchers think they know why.
Using a variety of molecular techniques, the researchers examined the remaining tissue and found that two structural proteins — the “skeletons” of neurons and star cells — were closer together in the ancient brain. In a one-year experiment, they found that these agglomerations were also more stable than in the modern brain.
These ancient protein clumps may help preserve the structure of soft tissue for a long time, researchers report in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
Concentrated proteins are a sign of brain diseases such as aging and Alzheimer’s disease. But the team did not find any typical protein clumps in the ancient brain that reflected these diseases.
In addition, scientists are still unsure what makes these proteins more stable together, but they suspect it may be related to burial conditions, which appear to be part of a ritual. At the same time, the new findings could help researchers gather information from proteins in other ancient tissues that are not easy to extract DNA.