By Jessica Stewart on July 2, 2022
Over 2,000 people perished when Mount Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii in 79 CE. Now, for the first time, researchers have been able to fully sequence the DNA of one victim.
In 79 CE, thousands of lives instantly changed when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the town of Pompeii under 23 feet of ash and debris. Over 2,000 people perished in the disaster, many inside their homes. Now, for the first time, researchers have been able to fully sequence the DNA of one victim. Thanks to their work, we have even more insight into the people who called Pompeii their home.
A study published in Nature details how the team looked to analyze the DNA of two people whose remains were found in the Casa del Fabbro, which was excavated in 1914. The bodies belonged to a man in his late 30s or early 40s and a 50-year-old woman. They were discovered lying in their dining room—or triclinium—on the remains of a chaise lounge. The fact that they were most likely enjoying a leisurely meal when disaster struck is not unusual. In fact, 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.”
Extracting DNA from the petrous bone at the base of the skulls, they were able to discover the sex, ages, and height of the victims. The man was about five foot four inches, while the woman was around five feet. Although complete information could not be obtained from the woman’s DNA due to gaps in the sequences, they were able to sequence the man’s entire genome. Prior to this, only short strands of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal remains had been sequenced from Pompeii.
So what did they learn? First, they saw that his genetics were similar to modern individuals living in central Italy, as well as to those living during the Roman Imperial Era. Interestingly, they also noted a group of genes common to individuals living in Sardinia, though not present in those living in mainland Italy at the time. This suggests that there may be more genetic diversity across the Italian Peninsula than originally thought. Their findings also noted that the man was also afflicted with spinal tuberculosis, a common ailment at the time.[…]