In 79 CE, one of the most famous, historical natural disasters occurred when Mount Vesuvius erupted and wiped out the ancient city of Pompeii. It was then that the volcano buried the entire city – and most of the people living there – under 23 feet of ash and debris. Thanks to modern technology, for the first time ever scientists were able to fully sequence the DNA of a man whose body was preserved under the ash. This has given researchers much more insight into life during the Roman Empire.
Scientists Fully Sequence DNA of Man From Pompeii For The First Time
We have learned much about life in Pompeii from studying the archeological site and the mummified bodies of the people who lived there. Recently, a study published in Scientific Reports, detailed how researchers analyzed the data of two people – a man and a woman – who archeologists found in the Casa del Fabbro in 1914. (1)
The bodies are those of a man in his late 30s or early 40s and a woman in her 50s. The archeologists discovered the pair lying in their dining room on the remains of a chaise lounge. Researchers say that they were likely enjoying a leisurely meal when the ash spouting from Vesuvius buried them in their home. In fact, they say, many of the preserved bodies were found in their homes doing rather mundane life things.
“more than half of individuals found in Pompeii died inside their houses, indicating a collective unawareness of the possibility of a volcanic eruption or that the risk was downplayed due to the relatively common land tremors in the region.” the study’s authors wrote.
So this pair of individuals likely had no idea of the imminent danger until it was far, far too late.
Read: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, known as ‘Napalm Girl,’ receives final burn treatment 50 years after iconic image
What They Found In The DNA
The scientists extracted the DNA from the petrous bones at the base of the skulls of each person. From this they discovered that the man stood at about five foot four inches tall. The woman was a bit shorter, maxing out at just five feet. Gaps in the sequences of the woman’s DNA prevented the scientists from obtaining complete information about her. The man’s DNA, however, was complete. This is the first time scientists have been able to study a complete DNA sequence from a Pompeii victim.
They found that this man’s genetics are very similar to modern Italians living in central Italy. His DNA is also very similar to people who lived in the Roman Imperial Era. They also found that he had a group of genes normally found in people from Sardinia. These genes are not normally found in those who were living in mainland Italy at the time, which perhaps signifies more genetic diversity in ancient Italy than they originally thought. Finally, they also found the man suffered from spinal tuberculosis. This was a relatively common health problem of the time.
Why Is This Information Important?
The DNA from individuals who lived in ancient Pompeii and other parts of Italy helps historians figure out more details about life in the Roman Empire. This specific sequence of DNA also gives them hope that they will be able to extract full sequences of DNA from other bodies that were buried in Pompeii.
All of this is possible because of the volcanic ash that buried the city. The ash prevented the DNA from being exposed to oxygen. Oxygen damages DNA, so the lack of it meant that much of these people’s DNA was preserved. Hopefully, scientists will be able to more fully sequence DNA strands in more Pompeii victims like this man.
A Dream Come True
Naturally, for the scientists who had the opportunity to work on Pompeii, it was an incredible honor. It is not every day and in every scientist’s career that one gets the opportunity to work on one of the world’s most famous and most treasured archeological sites.
“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,” said they study’s lead author Gabriele Scorrano. “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.” (3)
Keep Reading: The deepest view of the unseen universe ever captured: NASA releases first images from new space telescope
- “Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.” Scientific Reports
- “This Man Was Encased in Volcanic Ash in Pompeii. Here’s What His DNA Reveals.” Smithonian Magazine. May 27, 2022.
- “Human genome of Pompeii victim sequenced for the first time” CNN. May 26, 2022.