Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Partially excavated and restored ancient ruins of Herculaneum, Ercolano, Italy.

Ash from Mount Vesuvius buried both the Roman city of Herculaneum (pictured) and the better-known Pompeii. Credit: Getty

Archaeology

Vitrified brains and baked bones tell the story of Vesuvius deaths

Remains found at a city near Pompeii present opposing narratives of how people perished in the AD 79 eruption.

Some of Mount Vesuvius’s victims might have died more slowly than previously thought after the eruption’s hot gases and ash engulfed them nearly two millennia ago.

Vesuvius brought death not only to Pompeii, but also to nearby Herculaneum, a neighbouring city where the remains of 340 people have been found on the beach and in nearby boathouses. Researchers have long thought that those victims died instantly as their soft tissue vapourized.

After analysing the ribs of 152 victims, however, Tim Thompson at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, UK, and his colleagues found that the crystalline structure of the bone and the remaining collagen did not show the expected signs of exposure to high temperatures. The researchers say that the individuals in the boathouses were suffocated and baked rather than vapourized.

But in a separate finding, Pier Paolo Petrone at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and his colleagues report that a Herculaneum victim’s skull contained brain tissue that had turned into a hard, glass-like substance. That finding and an analysis of nearby charred wood suggest the person was subjected to extreme temperatures that would have vapourized human tissues, Petrone and his colleagues say.

More Research Highlights...

Plastic and other debris floats underwater in blue water

Plastic detritus from snacks and meals floats in the Red Sea. Marine sampling shows that food waste accounts for nearly 90% of plastic pollution at some locales. Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media/Getty

Ocean sciences

Humanity’s fast-food habit is filling the ocean with plastic

Food bags, drink bottles and similar items account for the biggest share of plastic waste near the shore.
Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles.

An artist’s impression of ‘entangled’ particles, which share properties even at a distance. Entangled photons can be used to help secure a multi-party video meeting. Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

Quantum information

Quantum keys dial up tamper-proof conference calls

A new experiment efficiently distributes the highly secure keys to four parties instead of the typical two.
Farmers harvest pineapples in a field.

Workers harvest pineapples in Lingao County, China. Less than one-third of the money spent on food eaten at home reaches farmers. Credit: Yuan Chen/VCG/Getty

Economics

Poor harvest: farmers earn a pitiful fraction of the money spent on food

The bulk of consumer food spending around the world ends up in the coffers of distributors, processors and other parties beyond the farm gate.
A woman wearing a protective face mask splashes her hands in a jet of water

A pedestrian seeks relief from searing temperatures in Spain, where a high proportion of heat-related deaths have been linked to climate change. Credit: SALAS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Climate change

More than one-third of heat deaths blamed on climate change

Warming resulting from human activities accounts for a high percentage of heat-related deaths, especially in southern Asia and South America.
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing

Search

Quick links