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Researchers sequenced the genome of one of Pompeii’s ancient inhabitants

Bones and ancient DNA managed to survive the Pompeii eruption.

Researchers sequenced the genome of one of Pompeii’s ancient inhabitants
Victims covered in ash, Pompeii sestovic/iStock

Thousands of residents of the ancient city Pompeii died in a deadly volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D. About 2000 years have passed since that horrific event took place, but the bones and genes of the dead Pompeiians are still revealing new secrets before the researchers. 

A recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports highlights the presence of unexpected health conditions and genetic diversity in the population that thrived in ancient Pompeii and other parts of the Italian peninsula during Roman rule. The authors of the study have developed the first Pompeiian genome sequence from the skeletons of a man and a woman that died during the volcanic tragedy. 

Interestingly, the skeletons were initially discovered in 1933 at an archaeological site called the Craftsman's House (Casa del Fabbro), and they have been kept preserved all these years. While talking about the condition of the preserved bones, lead author Professor Gabriele Scorrano said, "It was all about the preservation of the skeletons. It's the first thing we looked at, and it looked promising, so we decided to give (DNA extraction) a shot."

What secrets does the ancient Pompeiian DNA hold? 

Researchers sequenced the genome of one of Pompeii’s ancient inhabitants
Digital radiograph of the fourth lumbar vertebra affected by tuberculous spondylodiscitis of the man. Source: Scientific Reports/Nature

Using advanced DNA sequencing tools, scientists extracted genetic material from the petrous of one of the skeletons. Petrous is a small pyramid-shaped segment of the temporal bone that protects the inner portion of the human ear. Paleogenetic analysis (analysis of genetic material found in ancient remains) of the preserved DNA from petrous further enabled the researchers to know important details about the genetic and medical history of the Pompeiians.

The analysis suggested the presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA in the genetic material of the man’s skeleton, indicating that the person had spinal tuberculosis. During the 1933 excavation, the skeletons of the man and woman were found in a position as if they were dining when suddenly the eruption from the volcano burnt them alive. 

The new findings indicated that the man couldn’t run away because of his inability to move due to his spinal issues. In an interview with The New York Times, one of the study's authors, Pier Francesco Fabbri said, “the condition would have forced him to have little mobility.” To trace the genetic history, the researchers then studied the genetic material of 1030 ancient and 471 modern-day inhabitants of the Italian peninsular region and compared the same with the Pompeiian DNA.

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Surprisingly, the genetic makeup of the man’s petrous highlighted Roman ancestry and revealed a shared genetic heritage with people living in Anatolia, Turkey, and the island of Sardinia. These findings suggest that Pompeii and the Italian peninsular region were rich in terms of racial and genetic diversity during ancient times. Since the amount of genetic material extracted from the woman’s skeleton was very low, researchers were not able to perform a detailed genetic analysis of her DNA. 

Studying the remains of Pompeii is an “emotional” experience 

Now known as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Pompeii was once a lavish city crowded with members of wealthy Roman families. The place had open theatres, markets, cultural beauty, and a population of around 12,000. The eruption from Mount Vesuvius engulfed the city’s glory and buried the same under large amounts of volcanic ash. Some estimates suggest that about 16,000 people died during the tragedy.  

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Explaining the significance of the skeleton remains from Pompeii, researcher Serena Viva told BBC, "These people are silent witnesses to one of the most well-known historical events in the world. To work with them is very emotional and a great privilege for me." She believes that the remains are like a picture describing what happened to Pompeii on the day Mount Vesuvius erupted.

Abstract:

The archaeological site of Pompeii is one of the 54 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy, thanks to its uniqueness: the town was completely destroyed and buried by a Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D. In this work, we present a multidisciplinary approach with bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic analyses of two Pompeian human remains from the Casa del Fabbro. We have been able to characterize the genetic profile of the first Pompeian’ genome, which has strong affinities with the surrounding central Italian population from the Roman Imperial Age. Our findings suggest that, despite the extensive connection between Rome and other Mediterranean populations, a noticeable degree of genetic homogeneity exists in the Italian peninsula at that time. Moreover, palaeopathological analyses identified the presence of spinal tuberculosis and we further investigated the presence of ancient DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In conclusion, our study demonstrates the power of a combined approach to investigate ancient humans and confirms the possibility to retrieve ancient DNA from Pompeii human remains. Our initial findings provide a foundation to promote an intensive and extensive paleogenetic analysis in order to reconstruct the genetic history of population from Pompeii, a unique archaeological site.

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