Scholars May Have Reconstructed the Face of a Controversial Biblical Figure

The same technique is used by crime scene investigators in the FBI.


In Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene, who is only obliquely mentioned in the Bible, takes center stage. The novel, which drew heavily from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, contends that the grail wasn’t actually a cup but rather Mary herself, who held the blood of Christ in her womb, as in, his children. She was the wife of Jesus in this view and carried on his bloodline after his death, in France.

Unfortunately, Holy Blood, Holy Grail doesn’t provide very strong evidence. The documents that its weak theory rested upon were debunked by a 1996 BBC documentary and several French books. But that hasn’t stopped the propagation of the hoax. And reports on this project may resurrect it.

A skull kept deep inside a French basilica house, said to be Mary Magdalene’s, has been brought to light so to speak, as an artist and scientist have teamed up and reconstructed her face, showing what she would have looked like when she was alive. Biological anthropologist Philippe Charlier of the University of Versailles, openly admits they can’t prove it was the biblical figure.

Mary Magdalene, 1854. By: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Wikipedia Commons.

The skull and some bones are housed in a crypt below the basilica house. Forensic artist Philippe Froesch worked together with Charlier to reconstruct her visage. Froesch said the same technique is used by crime scene investigators at the FBI. The two Philippe’s didn’t actually get access to the skull itself. It was last studied in 1974. Since then, it’s been housed in a glass box inside the crypt.

They took photos of it from all different angles, and gained access to those which were taken during the last study. 500 photographs in total were used. From this, the artist constructed a 3D image. Froesch said it “was very emotional work for us.” The bone structure, cheek bones, and skull size all played a role. According to Froesch and Charlier, the remains indicated this was a 50-year-old woman of Mediterranean descent.

They got the shape of the nose using traits from her remains interpreted through trigonometric ratios. The hair was easy to reproduce: there was still some of it around. She had dark, brown hair. The skin tone was selected based on what’s typical for women of the region and other traits were subject to interpretation.

French computer graphics sculptor Philippe Froesch (L) and anthropologist, paleontologist, and forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier (R). Getty Images.

The only evidence we actually have of Mary of Magdalene is from the Bible. Magdalene is a small village on the Sea of Galilee. Most of the books of the New Testament that feature her show her as a devoted follower of Jesus.

Fifth century accounts besmirched her as a prostitute. Some speculate the smear campaign was in response to Magdalene’s stature as a key figure who helped shape early Christianity. Over the centuries Magdalene has been depicted in a variety of ways including as a nun, mystic, feminist, and as a symbol of repentance or devotion.

She is present in all major parts of the New Testament. Magdalene is even the first witness to the Resurrection. One perennial topic of exploration for scholars is whether or not she was the "apostle to the apostles." What’s for sure, Magdalene was even ordered to go forth and preach the gospel just as the others were, just before the Ascension.

Watch the reconstruction at National Geographic.

Though proud of their work, Charlier wishes he could study what’s known as the Saint Maximin skull, outside of its trappings. To see if it belonged to the biblical figure, a little piece would need to be removed in order to carbon date it. While genetic testing would allow us to see from which geographic region it originally hails. Up until now, the Catholic Church has disallowed such tests on the relic. Froesch and Charlier said they may try in the future to reconstruct her whole body, using the remaining bones found in the crypt.

This isn’t the only location in France rumored to be the resting place of Magdalene. Five others have been identified since the late 1200s. While in 2007, director James Cameron did a special for The Discovery Channel entitled, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. It claimed ossuaries of Jesus, Mary Magdalene—thought by some to be his wife, and their children, were found entombed in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The tomb was discovered during a construction project in 1980. Thus far, no compelling scientific evidence to support any of these claims has been produced.

To learn more about this project, click here: 

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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