New DNA Test Reveals Secrets About Pompeii Residents: ‘This Man Was Too Sick To Flee From Volcanic Eruption’ | Science & Planet

Scientists have revealed new “genetic secrets” after examining the remains of residents of the Roman city of Pompeii, which was covered in ash in AD 79 after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. More specifically, it concerns the DNA from the bones of a man and a woman, which were already excavated in 1933. It is the first time that a full set of genetic material, or a ‘genome’, of a Pompeian has been deciphered. With this, the scientists have been able to solve a mystery of no less than 90 years. It now appears that the two victims did not try to flee during the eruption because the man was too ill to do so.

The results of the study have been published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports. Researchers recovered the bodies of the man and woman 90 years ago in what archaeologists call the “Casa del Fabbro” (or the “Blacksmith’s House”). The two were in the corner of the dining room, so they may have been having lunch when the volcano erupted on August 24 in AD 79. A study previously showed that the ash clouds created by the eruption could kill the residents of Pompeii in less than 20 minutes.

According to anthropologist Serena Viva of the University of Salento, the man and woman made no attempt to escape. “From the position of their bodies, we can conclude that they were not fleeing,” something archaeologists have been asking many questions to date. “The cause for this can be sought in their health status,” the new study now confirms.

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Since the bones of the two victims are extremely well preserved, the latest technology allowed the researchers to extract a lot of interesting information from “a very small amount of bone powder”, explains Professor Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Copenhagen. That powder was made from a piece of the man’s skull, who would have been 35 to 40 years old, and the DNA was then “read” by a machine.

The scientists eventually found traces of a bacterium that causes tuberculosis. More specifically, a thorough investigation revealed that the Roman suffered from spinal tuberculosis, a serious form of the disease that affects the vertebrae. He was probably too ill to flee when disaster struck and the volcano erupted.

The vertebra of the male victim. © Scorrano, G., Viva, S., Pinotti, T. et al. Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Sci Rep 12, 6468 (2022).

“A treasure”

The study also showed that the man shared genetic traits with other individuals who lived in Italy during the Roman Empire. In addition, he had a group of genes that were common in people from the island of Sardinia, suggesting that there was great genetic diversity in the Italian peninsula at the time.

According to Professor Viva, every remnant from 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 great privilege for me.”

Professor Scorrano also emphasizes that there is much more to learn from genetic material from the Roman city. “Pompeii is like a 79 AD photograph of the population at that time. That is unique in the world. We’ve created a new opportunity for people to research this population.” Pompeii had a total of about 20,000 inhabitants. Today the buried city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Tourists in Pompeii.

Tourists in Pompeii. © epa

Also see: Archaeologists find rare ‘slave room’ in Pompeii