Scientists have revealed new “genetic secrets” after examining the remains of the Roman city of Pompeii, which was covered in ash in 79AD after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. More specifically, it concerns DNA taken from the bones of a man and a woman, which was actually excavated in 1933. It is the first time that a complete set of genetic material, or ‘genome’, of a Pompeian has been deciphered. With this, scientists have been able to solve the mystery for at least 90 years. It now appears that the two victims did not attempt to escape during the eruption because the man was too ill to do so.
The results of the study were published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports† Researchers exhumed the bodies of the man and woman 90 years ago in what archaeologists call the “Casa del Fabro” (or “Mourning House”). The two were in the corner of the dining room, so they were probably having lunch when the volcano erupted on August 24 in AD 79. A previous study showed that ash clouds from a volcanic eruption could kill the inhabitants of Pompeii in less than 20 minutes.
According to anthropologist Serena Viva of the University of Salento, the man and the woman did not try to escape. “We can infer from the location of their bodies that they did not flee,” something archaeologists have long wondered about until now. The new study now confirms that “the reason for this can be looked for in their health.”
Because the bones of the two victims have been so well preserved, the latest technology has allowed the researchers to extract a lot of interesting information from “a very small amount of bone powder,” explains Professor Gabriel Scorano of the University of Copenhagen. This powder was made from a piece of the skull of the man, who would have been between 35 and 40 years old, and then the DNA was read by a machine.
Scientists eventually found traces of the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. More specifically, a thorough investigation revealed that the Roman was suffering from spinal tuberculosis, a serious form of the disease that affects the vertebrae. Perhaps he was too ill to escape when the disaster struck and the volcano erupted.
The study also showed that the man shared the genetic traits with other individuals who lived in Italy during the Roman Empire. In addition, he had a set of genes that were common among people from Sardinia, which indicates the presence of great genetic diversity in the Italian peninsula at that time.
According to Professor Viva, every relic of Pompeii is a “treasure”. “These people are silent witnesses to one of the most famous historical events in the world,” she said. “Working with them is very emotional and a huge privilege for me.”
Professor Scorano also stresses that there is much to learn from the genetic material from the Roman city. “Pompeii is similar to the 79 AD picture of the population at that time. This is unique in the world. We have created a new opportunity for people to do research on this population.” Pompeii had a population of about 20,000 people. Today the buried city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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