Dozens of naturally preserved brains found in Spanish Civil War-era mass grave



MADRID, July 12 (Reuters) - Archaeologists excavating a mass grave from Spain's 1936 to 1939 Civil War have found the naturally preserved brains of 45 people eight decades after they were shot and buried on a hillside in the northern province of Burgos.

Spain has hundreds of mass graves from the war and from ensuing decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. Very few have been dug up due to a lack of funding and Spain's "pact of forgetting" on its return to democracy in the 1970s.

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The brains from some of the bodies in the La Pedraja grave were preserved by very specific environmental conditions after heavy rains seeped into bullet holes in their skulls. This "saponification" process turned them into a soap-like substance.

A preserved heart has also been unearthed, an unprecedented finding, says forensic scientist Fernando Serrulla who worked on the dig and has published a study with details of the discovery.

"Naturally preserved brains are very rare," Serrulla said. "There are only around 100 documented cases in the world."

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Naturally preserved brains found in Spanish grave
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Naturally preserved brains found in Spanish grave
Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, prepares to show one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, holds a recipient containing one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
A mass grave were found in 2010 the remains of the bodies of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1936 is seen in the area known as La Pedraja, Burgos, Spain, June 23. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
A drawing depicting the remains of the bodies were found in 2010 of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1936 is seen next the mass grave in the area known as La Pedraja, Burgos, Spain, June 23. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Miguel Angel Martinez, grandson of Rafael Martinez who is one of those were killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1936, poses next a mass grave in the area known as La Pedraja, Burgos, Spain, June 23. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
A saponified heart of one of the persons killed in 1936 by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, is seen at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 9, 2017. Picture taken June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Miguel Angel Martinez, grandson of Rafael Martinez who is one of those were killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1936, stands next a mass grave in the area known as La Pedraja, Burgos, Spain, June 23. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, prepares to show one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, prepares to show one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Fernando Serrulla, a forensic anthropologist of the Aranzadi Science Society, shows one of the 45 brains saponified of those killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco which were found in 2010 in a mass grave around the area known as La Pedraja, at a laboratory in Verin, Spain, June 9, 2017. Picture taken June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
A placard, showing the names of those were killed by forces of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1936, is seen next to the mass grave where they were buried in the area known as of La Pedraja, Burgos, Spain, June 23. Picture taken June 23, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina
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The brains are being kept in a laboratory in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where Serrulla works. Shriveled, brown and with the ridges still showing, they form the largest collection of naturally preserved human brains in the world, he says.

None of the preserved organs and only 16 of the 104 bodies dug up from the grave have been identified.

Rafael Martinez, the president of a socialist association killed by Franco's supporters in 1936, was recently identified as one of the bodies in La Pedraja.

"If only those brains could tell of what happened there," his grandson, Miguel Angel Martinez, said. (Reporting by Alba Asenjo; Editing by Sonya Dowsett and Louise Ireland)

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