The skeletons of a man and woman discovered around 100 years ago, as they were trying to survive the notorious Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD, have been put under the scanner by scientists. Using genome sequencing successfully on the remains of the Pompeii man, the scientists learned that he shared DNA that is similar to modern Italians from central Italy and Sardinia. While Sardinian heritage has never been seen before in the published genomes of ancient Romans, the central Italian heritage is shared with those who lived in Italy during the Roman imperial age (27 BC – 476 AD). Their findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports .
The team, led by Dr. Gabriele Scorrano , assistant Professor at the Section for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, conducted bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic analyses of the two Pompeian human remains. These skeletons were found in what is known as the Casa del Fabbro or House of the Craftsman, and for the first time scientists have been able to sequence an entire human genome from a man who lived 1,900 years ago.
The remains of the Pompeii man and woman were discovered in the Casa del Fabbro (House of the Craftsman) in Pompeii. (Mentnafunangann / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
DNA Extraction and Genome Sequencing of Pompeii Man
Genome sequencing is a scientific method that has been developed to “read” DNA, helping glean the entirety of the genetic makeup of an organism. Previous studies from Pompeii have managed to sequence small stretches of mitochondrial DNA from both human and animal victims. The Pompeiian human genome is encoded in DNA extracted from the bones of the Pompeii man, serving to function as a complete set of genetic instructions.
“In the future many more genomes from Pompeii can be studied,” said Serena Viva, an anthropologist at the University in Salento, who was part of the study. “The victims of Pompeii experienced a natural catastrophe, a thermal shock, and it was not known that you could preserve their genetic material. This study provides this confirmation, and that new technology on genetic analysis allows us to sequence genomes also on damaged material.”
Dr. Serena Viva analyzing one of the Pompeii skeletons. (Serena Viva)
The success this time around has led them to hope that this blueprint can be applied to other victims caught in the eruption, helping uncover new details about their lives. “The findings demonstrate the possibility to retrieve ancient DNA from Pompeiian human remains and provide further insight into the genetic history and lives of this population… despite the extensive connection between Rome and other Mediterranean populations, a noticeable degree of genetic homogeneity exists in the Italian peninsula at that time,” write the authors of the study.
The man was aged between 35 and 40, roughly 5 feet and 4 inches (1.63 m) in height and his female counterpart was over the age of 50, around 4 feet and 9 inches (1.45 m). The Pompeii man’s DNA was compared with genetic codes of over a thousand ancient humans, and 471 modern western Eurasians. Analysis of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA identified a group of genes commonly found in Sardinia. The pair was found leaning against a low couch inside the House of the Craftsman, a dwelling right in the heart of the marketplace at Pompeii, says a report published in Science.
Scientists have been able to sequence the entire genome of the Pompeii man using his skeletal remains. (Serena Viva)
Tuberculosis: An Emerging Threat in Rome
According to Ms. Viva, they were not trying to flee, which could be a result of their respective medical conditions. Further analysis of the man’s skeleton revealed lesions in one of the vertebrae, with DNA sequencing suggesting he had tuberculosis right before his death. The woman was probably living with osteoarthritis, affecting her ability to be mobile.
The researchers point out that tuberculosis was endemic in the Roman Imperial period, with ample evidence recorded through writing and ancient descriptions. With the increased urbanization of the imperial Roman center as it kept gobbling more and more territory on the peripheries, an increase in population and lifestyle emerged. This would, in turn, lead to more cloistered living, which would fuel the rise of tuberculosis.
Photography and digital radiograph of the fourth lumbar vertebra (L4) affected by tuberculous spondylodiscitis of the Pompeii man. (Scorrano et. al. / CC BY 4.0 )
Remarkable Level of Preservation
It is precisely the nature of the eruption that has allowed for such a remarkable level of preservation almost 2,000 years later. Pyroclastic substances (hot gas, lava and debris) that were discharged during the eruption, probably protected the DNA from the biggest decomposer in the environment – oxygen. Rather than coming in direct contact with volcanic lava, the remains of humans at Casa del Fabbro and others were covered in volcanic ash, which created a protective layer.
“Pompeii is one of the most unique and remarkable archaeological sites on the planet, and it is one of the reasons that we know so much about the classical world. To be able to work and contribute in adding more knowledge about this unique place is unbelievable,” highlighted Scorrano in an email exchange with CNN. “To take part in a study like this was a great privilege, Pompeii is a unique context in all points of view, the anthropological one allows one to study a human community involved in a natural disaster.”
Top image: Pompeii man and woman discovered in the Casa de Fabbro, or House of the Crafsman, in a photograph taken in 1934. Source: Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità
By Sahir Pandey