An Armenian-American-Irish archeological expedition claims to have found the remains of the world's oldest human brain, estimated to be over 5,000 years old. The team also says it has found evidence of what may be history's oldest winemaking operation. The discoveries were made recently in a cave in southeastern Armenia.
An analysis performed by the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine confirmed that one of three human skulls found at the site contains particles of a human brain dating to around the first quarter of the 4th millennium BC.
"The preliminary results of the laboratory analysis prove this is the oldest of the human brains so far discovered in the world," said Dr. Boris Gasparian, one of the excavation's leaders and an archeologist from the National Academy of Science's Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Yerevan. "Of course, the mummies of Pharaonic Egypt did contain brains, but this one is older than the Egyptian ones by about 1,000 to 1,200 years."
The Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, like other research laboratories examining the Areni finds declined to comment to EurasiaNet about its test results.
In late 2008, researchers in the United Kingdom found a roughly 2,000-year-old human brain -- at the time believed to rank as among the world's oldest.
The team in Armenia, comprised of 26 specialists from Ireland, the United States and Armenia, had been excavating the three-chamber cave where the brain was found since 2007. The site, overlooking the Arpa River near the town of Areni, is believed to date mostly to the Late Chalcolithic Period or the Early Bronze Age (around 6,000 to 5,000 years ago). It also contains evidence of elaborate burial rituals and agricultural practices.
The skull with the brain was found in a chamber that contained three buried ceramic vessels containing the skulls of three women, about 11 to 16 years old. The cave's damp climate helped preserve red and white blood cells in the brain remains.
Additional finds are expected, excavation leaders say: the project team so far has examined only about 10 percent of the 500-square-meter site.
"It is a unique first-hand source of information about the genetic code of the people who inhabited this place, and we're now studying it," Gasparian said in reference to the nine-centimeter-long, seven-centimeter-high brain fragment. It is still being determined from what part of the brain the fragment comes.
Excavation co-leader Ron Pinhasi, a biological anthropologist from Ireland's University College Cork, called the remains "a mystery we have to understand."
"These are obviously ritualistic secondary burials, which means the three bodies were beheaded after being buried, and then re-buried in these vessels," said Pinhasi.
Microscopic analysis revealed blood vessels and traces of a brain hemorrhage, perhaps caused by a blow to the head, Gasparian said.
Next to one of the three skulls, the team also found four adult femoral shafts -- midsections of a thigh bone -- that may have also played a role in the ritual.
"Interestingly, some of them were not just burnt, but rather evenly roasted from all sides, which directly points to a ceremonial practice. This may have been a case of ceremonial cannibalism, but it still needs to be proved," said Gasparian.
The excavation has also unearthed another potential record-setter -- vessels, pots, grape seeds and grape vine shoots, which, according to Gasparian and Pinhasi, could classify the site as one of the world's oldest wineries.
"If the analysis confirms the place has been a winery, for the first time ever we will be able to say wine has been produced as early as about 6,000 years ago," Gasparian said.
Winemaking with wild grapes is believed to have gotten its start in Georgia, Armenia's neighbor to the north, and in Iran, not far from the Areni-1 site, between 6,000 BC and 5,000 BC.
Areni is distinct because the number and volume of the vessels found suggests that wine was produced here in commercial qualities and from domesticated grapes, according to Gasparian.
Near the spot where the three skulls were buried, the excavation team found more then 30 vessels ranging in size from 50 liters to one with a diameter of 1.5 meters. The one vessel's volume has yet to be quantified.
Grape seeds and a grape branch sent to Oxford University's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit for Carbon-14 analysis have been dated to the late 5th millennium BC or the early 4th millennium BC, he said.
Researchers are now waiting for the results of a chemical analysis to confirm whether the vessels contained wine or vinegar or some other substance. "If the analyses prove our hypothesis, Areni can be called the Armenian equivalent of French Provence and Champagne" in terms of the volume of wine produced, Gasparian added.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.