Over 2000 years ago, the famous city of Pompeii was buried by ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The layer of ash covering the city has acted as a protective shield against the environment and degradation. The historical site has provided a window into ancient Roman life, yielding insights into the culture, architecture, and language of that day.
Now, they have gained an insight into genetics as well. Thanks to advancements in genomic sequencing technology, scientists from the University of Rome have sequenced the DNA of ancient Pompeiians for the first time.
The bioarchaeological and genomic analyses were carried out on the skull bones of two adults – one male and one female – found in a building named Casa del Fabbro, or a House of the Blacksmith in English. Due to the condition of the genetic material, the woman’s sequence could not be completed, and the man’s results came back of low quality.
Despite the fragmented sequence, some key insights about his genes were able to be made. A comparative analysis suggested that the man was Italian, as most of his DNA matched with the people of central Italy from both modern and ancient times. There were also genes found common on the island of Sardinia, showing a high level of genetic diversity across the Italian Peninsula during this period. This aligns with the historical understanding of the multinationalism of the Roman Empire at the time and also the large importation of slaves.
The bones showed evidence of a Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection, suggesting the man was suffering from tuberculosis. This also aligns with a historical understanding of ancient Italy, where an increased population and the emergence of an urban lifestyle expedited the spread of the disease.
“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 researchers write in their paper.
They continue: “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.”
Studying ancient genetic material also helps piece together a little more of the story of modern-day genetics. The more we understand about diseases – including how, when, and where they emerged and spread – gives scientists a higher chance of finding a potential treatment for them.
Source study: Scientific Reports – Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD