Scientists successfully sequence the genome of a man who died in Pompeii in 79 AD for the first time. Their findings show that he shared similar DNA to modern central Italians and other people who lived in Italy during the Roman imperial age.
A study published in the Scientific Reports journal states researchers studying the remains of two individuals found in the House of the Craftsman in Pompeii have successfully sequenced the man’s genome.
The building is in the densely populated centre of Pompeii. The whole city was buried under 23 feet of ash and debris following the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. More than 2,000 people died as a direct result of the explosion.
The structure of both skeletons suggest that one set of remains belonged to a man aged between 35 and 40. The other came from a 50-year-old woman.
Scientists obtained DNA from both individuals. However, they were only able to sequence the entire genome from the man’s remains.
“Pompeii is one of the most unique and remarkable archaeological sites on the planet, and it is one of the reasons that we know so much about the classical world. To be able to work and contribute in adding more knowledge about this unique place is unbelievable,” said Gabriele Scorrano to CNN. Scorrano is a lead author of the study.
Before this latest study only short stretches of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal remains from Pompeii had been sequenced. Scorrano said it may have been possible to successfully extract ancient DNA from their samples because pyroclastic materials – a burning hot mix of gas, lava and debris – discharged during the eruption may have protected the DNA from environmental factors, such as oxygen in the atmosphere that led to decomposing.
“Individuals in Pompeii were not directly in contact with volcanic lava, but rather were enveloped in volcanic ash,” Scorrano said. This, he explained, created an oxygen-free environment, which helped preserve the DNA in the skeletal remains.
“One of the main drivers of DNA degradation is oxygen (the other being water). Temperature works more as a catalyst, speeding up the process. Therefore, if low oxygen is present, there is a limit of how much DNA degradation can take place,” Scorrano added.
Genetic diversity of Italian peninsula
Analysis of the genome has shed light on the genetic diversity of the human population that lived on the Italian Peninsula 2,000 years ago, when Pompeii was destroyed.
Scientists compared DNA from the man’s remains with that of 1,030 ancient people, and 471 western Eurasian individuals. Their findings show he shared similar DNA to modern central Italians and others who lived in Italy during the Roman imperial age.
Further analysis of the male’s mitochondrial DNA also revealed groups of genes frequently found in people from Sardinia. However, it is not found among other people who resided in Italy during the Roman imperial age.
“It is significant because it shows that there is a lot we still don’t know about the genetic diversity at the time of the Roman Empire, and how this impacts modern Italians and other Mediterranean populations,” Scorrano said.