(ORDO NEWS) — We now know the genetic legacy of one of the victims who tragically died in a volcanic eruption in the Italian city of Pompeii almost 2,000 years ago.
Scientists have succeeded in sequencing the genome of a man who was in middle age when he died in Pompeian House of Artisans, revealing his genetic profile and, notably, that he had tuberculosis during his lifetime.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is considered one of the most devastating volcanic disasters in human history. In AD 70, the volcano exploded epicly, killing thousands of inhabitants of the nearby cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, as well as other settlements.
These victims died either from the intense heat of the pyroclastic flows that the volcano sent into the vicinity, or suffocated from gas, ash and pumice, which then fell from the sky.
It was previously thought that this mode of death rendered the victims’ DNA unsuitable for analysis, as such high temperatures effectively destroyed the bone matrix that contained the DNA.
On the other hand, the ash that covered the victims and preserved their fate for almost two millennia could have served as a defense against environmental factors that cause further degradation, such as oxygen.
Previous attempts to analyze the DNA of the ancient Pompeians used polymerase chain reaction techniques, recovering short segments of DNA from humans and animals, and suggesting that at least some of the genomic information survived the ravages of the volcano and time.
However, recent advances in genome sequencing have greatly increased the amount of information that can be obtained from DNA fragments that were previously too damaged to be viable.
In their new study, archaeologist Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Rome in Italy and colleagues tried to apply these methods to the remains of two human victims of Vesuvius.
They were found in one of the rooms of the building known today as the Casa del Fabbro, or Craftsman’s House. The first person was a male aged between 35 and 40 at the time of death, standing 164.3 centimeters (5 ft 4 in).
The second person is a woman who was over 50 years old at the time of her death and was about 153.1 centimeters (5 feet) tall. Both of these growths correspond to the average Roman indicators of that time.
In these individuals, the researchers extracted DNA from the lobular bone of the skull, one of the densest bones in the body and thus the most likely to retain viable DNA.
Using identical methods, material was extracted and sequenced from both bones. However, only enough DNA has been obtained from human bone for reasonable analysis.
The team compared the sample with the genomes of 1,030 ancient and 471 modern West Eurasian humans. The results suggest that the man was Italian, with much of his DNA matching people from central Italy in both ancient and modern times.
However, some genes have been found that are not found in the inhabitants of mainland Italy, but are found on the island of Sardinia.
This, according to the researchers, suggests that during the period of human life on the Italian peninsula there was a high level of genetic diversity.
This makes sense considering how much the ancient Romans moved and how many slaves they imported from other regions. But the high proportion of genes associated with the Italian population suggests that this person was Italian, not a slave.
Interestingly, the genetic material obtained from his lobe bone showed DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Careful examination of his vertebrae suggests that he was afflicted with spinal tuberculosis, a particularly devastating form of the disease.
This agrees with the more or less contemporary written evidence of Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Galen, Caelius Aurelianus, and Areteus of Cappadocia. The emergence of urban lifestyles and the subsequent increase in population density during Roman times contributed to the spread of tuberculosis, and it was probably not uncommon.
None of these results are surprising, but the very fact that they were obtained at all is incredible, and this discovery means that we may have a new window into the life of the Pompeians, whose deaths were so incredibly amazing.
“Our study – although limited to a single individual – confirms and demonstrates the feasibility of applying paleogenomic methods to the study of human remains from this unique site,” the researchers write in their paper.
“Our first results provide the basis for an intensive analysis of well-preserved Pompeian individuals.” Backed up by the vast amount of archaeological information collected over the past century from the city of Pompeii, paleogenetic analyzes will help us reconstruct the way of life of this interesting population of the Imperial Roman period.”
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