What would happen if you were pickled? The science behind the fiction

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Throughout history and pre-history, human bodies have been preserved through various methods both intentional and unintentional. Though, so far as I can tell, no one has ever been preserved in a pickle vat.

That’s the premise of the recent HBO Max original film, An American Pickle, written by Simon Rich, directed by Brandon Trost, and starring Seth Rogen in dual roles. The film tells the story of Herschel Greenbaum, an early twentieth-century immigrant to the United States who, owing to a series of misfortunes, finds himself preserved in after he falls into a pickling vat. Think Futurama’s Fry, only instead of traveling from the present a thousand years into the future in a cryo-tube, he’s traveling into the present from a hundred years in the past via a pool of brine.

Despite the ridiculous premise, it’s a tender tale of generational gaps and honoring the past while staying true to yourself. The set up isn’t really the point, but the film does take a moment to acknowledge the tenuous science of it in an early scene.

“Essentially, the pickle brine preserved him perfectly. It’s been 100 years but he hasn’t aged a day,” one scientist explains to a crowd of onlooking journalists. “That’s impossible… You don’t honestly expect us to buy that, do you… what’s the science behind it?” They ask, in response.

We’re told there is an explanation, one which is apparently satisfying to all in attendance, but we’re not privy to it. Instead, we get Herschel’s internal monologue assuring us the logic is good and satisfies everyone. This, of course, means it’s up to us to fill in the gaps.

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF YOU WERE ACTUALLY PICKLED?

While a pickle usually indicates a pickled cucumber, at least in the West, a pickle can refer to any number of foods preserved through one of two primary methods. Pickling involves submerging a food in an acidic liquid vinegar which is already acidic, or a saltwater brine, which creates lactic acid through fermentation.

Acids are not commonly thought of as preserving tissues, in fact, popular culture would have us believe it’s a great way to get rid of a body, not preserve one, but under the right concentrations, it works. Pickling in one form or another has existed for thousands of years and is one of the oldest methods for preserving food. The modern word for pickling takes its name either from the Dutch pekel or the German pokel, meaning salt or brine.

Salt brine pickling works by converting naturally occurring sugars in the pickled substance into acid. This process preserves the nutritional value of the food while preventing the survival and multiplication of spoiling bacteria, allowing the food to remain edible for months or years beyond when it would naturally have spoiled and decayed.

We can use pickled meats — especially those that contain hard tissues like pickled pig or chicken feet — as stand-ins for what might happen to a human body preserved in brine, but we can’t really know what would happen to a person without actually pickling them. Luckily for us, it’s been done. We’re not talking about a murder, or the strange specimen jars found in oddities shops, nothing so macabre as that. We’re talking about bog bodies.

Peat bogs occur when standing water is cut off from groundwater. This standing water struggles to bring in new oxygen, which decreases the rate of decay. If sufficient rainwater is present, the bog remains and certain species of moss, specifically the genus Sphagnum, proliferate. These types of moss interact with the water in such a way that it becomes acidic, lowering the pH to as low as 3.5, a level at which many harmful bacteria can’t survive. The pH of such a bog is well within the limits of a good pickling brine, making them the perfect place to preserve anything submerged within their murky depths. And, because human history is dark and full of horrors, that includes human remains.

More than 500 bog mummies have been discovered, dating from 800 B.C. to 200 A.D., the most famous of which is the Tollund Man, discovered in Denmark in 1950. The body of the Tollund Man was so well preserved, his discovers believed they must have stumbled upon a recent murder victim, despite the eventual realization he had lived roughly 2,300 years ago.

Preserved human remains like this offer a window into our deep past and the potential to answer questions about who we were thousands of years ago. They also offer answers to what happens when a body is effectively pickled.

Like the humble cucumber, the remains of the Tollund Man and other bog mummies like him, have been transformed by their time submerged in Earth’s natural brine. The most apparent change is in the skin, which is tanned to the point of almost appearing metallic. Likewise, there is a certain amount of tissue contraction, but mostly the bodies appear entirely human. An X-ray of the Tollund Man, undertaken shortly after he was discovered, confirmed his internal tissues, including his brain, are well preserved.

At first glance, if you can ignore the otherwordly condition of the skin, one can imagine that Tollund Man might get up, as if waking from a long nap. His face carries an eternal smile, despite evidence suggesting he was brutally murdered, or sacrificed, before being submerged.

Perhaps the greatest change he’s undergone as a consequence of his preservation, is that to his bones. The bog, as previously mentioned, leaches calcium. In this case, from the bones. Despite the otherwise impeccable preservation, this process often leaves bog bodies with no bones or teeth, a unique circumstance considering that under normal decay, the bones are usually the last thing to go.

Tollund Man, and the other bog bodies like him, offer a window into our past, allow us to peer into the depths of time and see the very faces of our ancestors. But they’re better at preserving some tissues than others.

Peat bogs, a sort of naturally occurring pickle jar, leave the surface facade intact while eroding the central structures necessary for mobility. It may be no surprise to you that spending a century, or many centuries, in brine turns out to be a fantastic method of preservation for archaeologists and sociologists. It isn’t so good, however, if you want to get up, walk around, and give your descendants a hard time about their life choices. Sorry, Herschel.



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