DNA of Pompeii Man Killed During Vesuvius Eruption Yields Its Secrets Almost 2,000 Years Later
Scientists fully sequence the genetic material from a victim of the cataclysm that killed thousands in central Italy in A.D. 79
The man’s skeletal remains were first discovered in 1932-33 during the excavation of a Pompeian building known as Casa del Fabbro, or House of the Blacksmith.PHOTO: NOTIZIE DEGLI SCAVI DI ANTICHITA, 1934, P. 286, FIG. 10.
By Aylin WoodwardFollow
May 26, 2022 11:00 am ET
When Italy’s Mount Vesuvius erupted violently in A.D. 79, a cloud of superheated ash killed thousands in and around the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum—including a middle-aged man who perished in an instant as he rested on a chaise lounge inside a Pompeian home. Now, an international team of scientists has fully sequenced the man’s DNA according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
The complete sequencing is believed to be the first ever of a Vesuvius victim. It revealed that the man was genetically similar to people living in Rome at the time but also had genes common among residents of the nearby island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea.
“It is an interesting explanation of the personal history of a protagonist of one of the world’s best-known catastrophic historical events,” said Gabriele Scorrano, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre. “People are always intrigued by disasters, especially natural disasters. I think it’s about empathy for the sudden and quick death of an entire defenseless human community.”
The findings also set the stage for more studies that could help scientists better understand the biological histories of people living in central Italy two thousand years ago, according to the researchers.
While scientists first began extracting ancient genetic material from the bones of Pompeian people and animals more than two decades ago, they had previously been able to sequence only short stretches of DNA.
The bones of the middle-aged man being studied at a lab in the University of Salento.PHOTO: SERENA VIVA
“High temperatures and millennia-long residence of bone remains in the soil can severely damage organic matter such as DNA and protein molecules,” said Pier Paolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Naples Federico II. He wasn’t involved in the study but is part of a group conducting similar DNA analyses of other Vesuvius victims.
The man’s skeletal remains were first discovered between 1932 and 1933 during the excavation of a Pompeian building known as Casa del Fabbro, or House of the Blacksmith, where local craftsmen worked. They were well preserved under a layer of rocky volcanic material, according to study co-author Serena Viva, a researcher in the University of Salento’s department of cultural heritage.
A close examination of the bones that Dr. Viva first conducted in 2016 indicated that the man had been between 35 and 40 years of age when he died. In 2017, the researchers extracted what proved to be well-preserved DNA from a region of the man’s skull called the petrous, whose extreme hardness is known to help protect genetic material that in other bones might be degraded.
The quality of that genetic material, coupled with new extraction techniques and sequencing technologies, enabled the full sequencing of the man’s DNA. Efforts to fully sequence the genetic material of an elderly woman whose skeletal remains were found near the man’s failed because there were too many gaps in the DNA taken from her petrous, according to the study authors.
An aeriel view of the ruins of Pompeii near Naples, southern Italy.PHOTO: CESARE ABBATE/SHUTTERSTOCK
Marks on the pair’s bones suggested that he had a potentially disabling form of tuberculosis endemic in the region at the time and that she had a form of arthritis—findings that Dr. Viva said may help explain why neither seems to have tried to flee the eruption, unlike many other Pompeians.
“The answer lies in their health condition and advanced age,” she said of the pair.
By comparing the Pompeian man’s DNA with genetic material taken from about 1,500 ancient and modern people from western Eurasia, the researchers determined his genetic similarity to people who lived contemporaneously in Rome. His genome, however, also included genes commonly found in people from Sardinia—suggesting that Pompeians were a genetically diverse population.
Besides offering a more informed look at Vesuvius victims’ last moments, continuing genetic analysis of DNA sequences from inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum—now designated archaeological parks and Unesco World Heritage sites—may help researchers reconstruct the biological history of populations living outside Rome during the time of the eruption.
“It can tell us about family relationships and the geographical origin of people,” Dr. Petrone said.
Write to Aylin Woodward at Aylin.Woodward@wsj.com