Scientists from the United States, Italy, Denmark and Brazil have successfully sequenced the genome of a 35-40 year-old male who died in the ancient city of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
The archaeological site of Pompeii is one of the 54 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy.
Pompeii was a Roman Imperial Age port city located south of Naples in Central Italy until it was completely destroyed and buried by the ashes of the Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 CE.
According to Pliny the Younger, the Vesuvius’ eruption occurred around 1 p.m. on the 24th of August and was visible from over 40 km away.
More than 2,000 individuals died as a direct consequence of the eruption, the deadliest ever in European history.
The several exceptionally well-preserved buildings found in Pompeii such as Casa del Chirurgo (House of the Surgeon), Casa del Fauno (House of Faun) and Casa dei Casti Amanti (House of the Chaste Lovers) suggest that Pompeii was probably a holiday resort for wealthy Romans.
However, Pompeii was also an important city for trading and business, with a population ranging between 6,400 and 20,000 dwellers.
Despite continuing an intense scientific research on the site since the nineteenth century to this day, conducting both bioarchaeological and genetic studies from Pompeiian human remains has been a challenge, as exposure to high temperature diminishes the quality and quantity of recoverable DNA.
In a new study, Dr. Gabriele Scorrano from the University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’ and the University of Copenhagen and colleagues examined the remains of two individuals who were found in Casa del Fabbro (House of the Craftsman) in Pompeii and extracted their DNA.
The shape, structure, and length of the skeletons indicated that one set of remains belonged to a male between 35 and 40 years old and 1.64 m tall, while the other set of remains belonged to a female over 50 years of age who stood 1.53 m tall.
Although the researchers were able to extract and sequence ancient DNA from both individuals, they were only able to sequence the entire genome from the male’s remains due to gaps in the sequences obtained from the female’s remains.
Comparisons of the male individual’s DNA with DNA obtained from 1,030 other ancient and 471 modern western Eurasian individuals suggested that his DNA shared the most similarities with modern central Italians and other individuals who lived in Italy during the Roman Imperial age.
“This individual was found to belong to the Y-chromosome lineage A-M13 (A1b1b2b), a rare lineage absent among ancient individuals from the Italian Peninsula, mainly found in Eastern Africa (40%), but with known occurrences, at much lower frequencies, in the Near East (Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia) and the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Cyprus and Lesbos,” they said.
“He belonged to the mitochondrial DNA haplogroup clade HV0a, the main monophyletic branch of HV0 and subclade of haplogroup HV. This mitochondrial lineage is absent among published Roman Imperial individuals from Italy.”
Additional analyses of the male individual’s skeleton and DNA identified lesions in one of the vertebrae and DNA sequences that are commonly found in Mycobacterium, the group of bacteria that the tuberculosis-causing bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis belongs to.
This suggests that the individual may have been affected by tuberculosis prior to his death.
“Our study — albeit limited to one individual — confirms and demonstrates the possibility of applying paleogenomic methods to study human remains from this unique site,” the authors said.
“Our initial findings provide a foundation to promote an intensive analysis of well-preserved Pompeian individuals.”
“Supported by the enormous amount of archaeological information that has been collected in the past century for the city of Pompeii, their paleogenetic analyses will help us to reconstruct the lifestyle of this fascinating population of the Imperial Roman period.”
The team’s results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
G. Scorrano et al. 2022. Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Sci Rep 12, 6468; doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-10899-1