The town of Pompeii was submerged under 23 feet of ash and debris during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, drastically altering the lives of thousands of people. Many of the over 2,000 people who died in the disaster did so inside of homes. For the first time, one victim's DNA has been completely sequenced by researchers. We now have even more knowledge about the people who lived in Pompeii as a result of their efforts.
The team examined the DNA of two individuals whose remains were discovered in the 1914 excavation of the Casa del Fabbro; their methods are described in a study published in Nature. A 50-year-old woman and a man in his late 30s or early 40s were the owners of the bodies. They were found lying on the remnants of a chaise lounge in their triclinium, or dining room. It's not unusual that they were probably having a leisurely meal when the catastrophe occurred. The study's authors state that “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.”
By obtaining DNA from the petrous bone situated at the base of the skulls, the victims' ages, sex, and height were ascertained. The woman was approximately five feet, while the man was approximately five feet four inches. They sequenced the entire genome of the man, even though gaps in the sequences prevented them from deriving all the information from the woman's DNA. Only brief segments of mitochondrial DNA from animal and human remains had previously been sequenced from Pompeii.
Initially, they observed that his genetic makeup matched that of both contemporary residents of central Italy and people who lived during the Roman Imperial Era. Interestingly, they also discovered a set of genes that were exclusive to Sardinian residents at the time and shared by those residing in mainland Italy. This shows that the genetic diversity of the Italian Peninsula might be higher than previously believed. According to their findings, the man also had spinal tuberculosis, which was a prevalent condition at the time.
Putting together the puzzle of life in Italy during the Roman Empire requires the use of all of this information. It also gives scientists hope that more DNA may be available for analysis. It's possible that more thorough sequencing of the remaining victims will soon come about because the volcanic ash that buried Pompeii is very effective at protecting delicate DNA from its primary adversary, oxygen. Working on such a historic site was an honour for the team. Lead author of the study and assistant professor of geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen Gabriele Scorrano said, "To take part in a study like this was a great privilege. Pompeii is a unique context from all points of view. The anthropological one allows one to study a human community involved in a natural disaster."
“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.”