This article was originally published on July 7, 2022.
The morning of August 24 could have started off like any other for the 30-something man. Of Mediterranean origin, he likely had a sore back, something that probably didn’t help him much in the blacksmith house where he may have worked. But around noon that day in the year A.D. 79, everything changed when Mount Vesuvius began to erupt in the region of Pompeii.
The man was encased in ash for nearly two millennia, alongside an older female with a bag of money. The two were first found by archaeologists in the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until recently that DNA preserved in the man’s bones was successfully extracted and sequenced, helping inform scientists about his origins and genetic relationship with modern-day Mediterranean people.
The recent discovery also marks the first time that scientists have been able to fully sequence the genome of someone who died at Pompeii. “He had fantastic, beautiful DNA that looks like almost a complete, whole genome,” says Fabio Macciardi, a molecular psychiatrist at the University of California, Irvine and one of the co-authors of the recent Scientific Reports study. “I would say that was an unexpected finding.”
Ancient DNA: How Pompeii Victims Died
When Mount Vesuvius erupted, it blanketed the nearby city of Pompeii (which sits about 14 miles southeast of modern-day Naples) in volcanic rock and ash. Hot gases followed the next day, choking the city’s inhabitants. The same calamities that destroyed Pompeii and its people also perfectly preserved them until their rediscovery in the 18th century.
The remains are so extensive that many areas are still being excavated centuries after their initial discovery. Just recently, for example, researchers discovered the remains of a pregnant tortoise that may have been searching for a place to lay eggs when disaster struck.
The remains of an ancient tortoise in Pompeii. (Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii)
The remains of what appears to be a blacksmith’s house were first discovered in the early 20th century, known as the Casa del Fabbro, or House of the Craftsman. A man, likely aged between 30 and 35, was found in the structure reclining on a Roman couch, or lectus, while a woman, aged 45 or older, was crouching by a nearby chair with a bag of money.
Archaeologists didn’t get around to examining these remains in more detail until recently, when they found that some bones were well-preserved. Beyond that, the skulls of both individuals were encased by the ash, preserving the dense petrous bone near the ear — an area where intact DNA is also likely to be preserved. The research team then contacted Macciardi, who normally researches DNA that causes neuropsychiatric disorders in modern humans. But studying ancient DNA, like the samples from the Pompeii victims, can also reveal much about how our brains have evolved over time.
Macciardi was skeptical at first that the genetic material would be intact after so many years. Though the researchers had opened up the petrous bones, and saw some DNA was indeed preserved, they weren’t yet sure whether it came from ancient humans rather than bacteria, a parasite or even contamination in the lab. “We were surprised to find it was the human genome of that particular individual,” says Macciardi.
Deeper analysis revealed bacteria showing that the man suffered from spinal tuberculosis, sometimes known as Pott’s disease, a debilitating and painful condition that slowly causes vertebrae to collapse inside the body. “It basically chops away your bones,” Macciardi says, adding that the man likely didn’t know what was causing him to suffer, since doctors were unaware of this condition at the time.
While he was found in a blacksmith’s shop, the man wasn’t necessarily a blacksmith himself. Macciardi says it’s unclear why he didn’t escape after the eruption — it’s possible he was left behind to protect the house. The older woman found nearby didn’t have enough preserved DNA for the researchers to sequence, but it’s possible that she was trying to hide the bag of money before the two of them fled. Since little else is clear about the context in which they were found, however, it’s also possible the two were looting the abandoned blacksmith house amidst the chaos of the disaster.
“There are a lot of interesting questions, but we’ll probably never know the answers,” Macciardi adds.
The man’s DNA also revealed that he was Mediterranean. “The DNA shows he was very similar to other well-known citizens sequenced in other villages, or even Rome [at the time],” Macciardi says. One of the man’s parents was likely from Sardinia, and several generations earlier, he had an ancestor from the Middle East or Turkey. The fact that he was probably a local shows he likely wasn’t a slave, as slaves were often drawn from more distant parts of the Roman Empire in North Africa or the Middle East, Macciardi says.
The man’s DNA is also quite similar to modern-day Mediterraneans living in southern Italy, Greece and Spain, Macciardi says. “The Roman Empire had a giant impact on present populations,” he adds. Ultimately, the researchers hope that these initial findings can act as a foundation for further genetic analysis of other Pompeii victims, who met a similarly grim fate that day.