May 29, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Genome of a Pompeii Volcano Victim Sequenced for the First Time With Surprising Revelations

While not the most violent nor the most destructive volcano of all time, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE has become the most famous, because it occurred in what was then a major center of European civilization, and the most studied after archeologists found that the city and its people were tragically preserved where they died by the swift burial in volcanic ash, and the ghost town has been slowly uncovered and restored. Nearly 2,000 years later, Pompeii has once again made news and added to its legacy with the announcement that scientists were able to analyze the remains of two Pompeiians and fully sequence the genome of one of them – shedding new light on the people living there when Vesuvius erupted. Who was this man and what does this mean for the history of Pompeii and for the science of genome sequencing of ancient remains?

Much has been recovered before from Pompeii but not DNA

“More than 2000 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 the 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 6400 and 20,000 dwellers.”

The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, opens by introducing us to Pompeii in 79 CE – a bustling city filled with both hard-working locals and many visitors. Gabriele Scorrano, an assistant professor in the department of health and medical sciences at the University of Copenhagen and a lead author of the study, explained to CNN that the remains were of a male and female found leaning against a couch in the Casa del Fabbro (House of the Smith or House of the Craftsman) in Pompeii’s marketplace area, were unusual because they were preserved by a hot mix of gas, lava and debris that sealed it from decomposition – thus providing skeletal remains with a high potential for full DNA analysis. Prior to this, scientists were only able to obtain mitochondrial DNA from decomposed human remains.

“Individual A was a male between 35 and 40 years-old and stood 164.3 cm (5.4 feet) tall. Individual B was a female over 50 years of age who stood 153.1 cm (5 feet) tall.”

Once the man’s genome had been sequenced, it was compared to genetic codes of over a thousand ancient humans and 471 modern western Eurasians. The researchers determined his DNA matched a group of genes commonly found in people living today in central Italy and Sardinia. That Sardinia connection is unique and puzzling – the study reports this is the first time Sardinian heritage had been found in the known genomes of ancient Romans. According to Scorrano, this shows the presence of genetic diversity at the time of the Roman Empire never seen before, and it could impact the current known history and genealogy of modern Italians and other Mediterranean countries.

“A palaeopathological study carried out on the Pompeian individual diagnosed spinal tuberculosis (Pott's disease) on the basis of diagnostic morphological markers such as a large lytic destruction on the upper anterior half of the fourth lumbar vertebra L4.”

Individual A’s skeleton revealed another surprise to the research team – it showed he was suffering from tuberculosis. Serena Viva, an anthropologist at the University in Salento and study co-author, tells Ancient Origins that Individual B’s skeleton showed signs of osteoarthritis. Together, this may explain why they were leaning against the couch instead of fleeing the eruption – it was difficult for both of them to move, let alone run. 

A view of uncovered portions of Pompeii

The researchers point out that tuberculosis was rampant in the Roman Imperial period and spreading with it as it conquered more territories and grew ever wider. The slow removal of the ashes covering Pompeii showed what the general population did in response – they huddled together in what could be considered an early form of the confinement that was the modern response to the coronavirus. Unfortunately, that cloistering in Pompeii had the opposite effect – it led to an increase in the spread of tuberculosis. This was truly an unexpected second revelation from the DNA analysis of ‘Individual A’.

“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.”

Now that science has proven preserved DNA can be found in Pompeii and the genome can be sequenced, we’ll learn more about this civilization other than its tragic end. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to give Individual A his name back too.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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