Scientists have found that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that occurred 2,000 years ago most likely killed people by vaporizing them and causing their heads to explode.
Researchers say that the material that was expelled from the volcano was so hot that it vaporized people’s blood, turning it into steam.
The intense heat from the volcano also boiled people’s brain. The heat built up pressure in peoples heads until their cranium eventually explored.
Extensive research has shown that most of the victims in Pompeii died from injuries or suffocation due to the thick ash expelled by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
But this was not the fate of many people who lived in the nearby city of Herculaneum.
A new study, published by scientists from the Federico II University Hospital in Italy in PLOS One, reveals that many of them were victims of the extreme heat of pyroclastic flows as well as pyroclastic surges.
“Here we show for the first time convincing experimental evidence suggesting the rapid vaporization of body fluids and soft tissues of the 79 AD Herculaneum victims at death by exposure to extreme heat,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
Pyroclastic flows are a mixture of gas and volcanic material (previous research has shown that they can flow downhill from an eruption at speeds of up to 700 kilometers per hour) and temperatures are as hot as 1000 degrees Celsius.
When a person is caught by such fluid, the result is instant death.
It is believed that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius–near modern-day Naples–killed around 16,000 people, burying the ancient cities of Herculaneum and neighboring town Pompeii.
Scientists studied remains found inside 12 ash-filled waterfront chambers in Herculaneum, discovering a mysterious red and black mineral residue on the bones, as well as inside the skulls.
The people who sought refuge in the 12 waterfront chambers were “suddenly engulfed by the abrupt collapse of the rapidly advancing first pyroclastic surge,” the researchers wrote.
It is believed that the pyroclastic surge reached temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius (392 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit), traveling at speeds between 100 and 300 kilometers per hour.
Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and Raman microspectroscopy revealed that the residue spotted by experts contains iron and iron oxides, exactly what would happen when blood boils and is vaporized.
“Careful inspection of the victims’ skeletons revealed cracking and explosion of the skullcap and blackening of the outer and inner table, associated with black exudations from the skull openings and the fractured bone,” the researchers wrote.
“Such effects appear to be the combined result of direct exposure to heat and an increase in intracranial steam pressure induced by brain ebullition, with skull explosion as the possible outcome.”
The research was published in the journal PLOS One.