Scientists have sequenced the genome of an unfortunate man who died on that fateful day in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius rained hell upon the Roman city of Pompeii.
As reported in the journal Scientific Reports, this is the first successfully sequenced genome of a human who died at Pompeii.
“The individual looks very similar to other Imperial Roman Age genomes we have available – but with a twist," Dr Gabriele Scorrano, lead study author from the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, told IFLScience.
The skeleton was found in the early 20th century within a structure in Pompeii known as the “House of the Craftsman” alongside another individual later revealed to be a small woman in her 50s.
An initial look at the male skeleton indicates he was around 1.64 meters tall (around 5 foot 4 inches) and was between 35 and 40 years old at the time of his death. From parts of the skulls of both skeletons, the team attempted to extract and sequence their DNA. Unfortunately, they couldn’t obtain much genetic material from the woman, but they had better luck with the man.
Diving into his genome, scientists learned that his DNA shared many similarities with modern central Italians and other individuals living in the area during the age of the Roman Empire. His height is also consistent with the stature of the average Roman male at the time.
However, other parts of his genetic make-up held some surprises.
"Some of its genetic profile, the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA, are very unusual for both the time and location. Actually, both his lineages were very rare,” Dr Scorrano told IFLScience.
“What we believe it means is that he represents some Iron Age genetic diversity that was lost due to the homogenization of the Italic peninsula after the Roman Empire. The results in Pompeii show us clearly that there is still a lot to learn on the genetic diversity of the Roman period, but also about the populations before them, the so-called Pre-Roman Italic populations,” explained Scorrano.
“Very little is known about them, and even their relationship with the Romans and present-day Italians is uncertain."
Scorrano explains that the team was pretty surprised they managed to get their hands on the genome. Working with ancient genetic material is notoriously tricky because it's prone to degrade over time, and it was previously assumed that the intense heat from the volcanic eruption rendered the DNA unreadable. However, thanks to cutting-edge methods for ancient DNA extraction and sequencing, they managed to pull it off.
Along with the human DNA, the team also detected DNA sequences commonly found in Mycobacterium, the group of bacteria tuberculosis-causing Mycobacterium tuberculosis belongs to. A close look at his spine should signs of tuberculous spondylitis, aka Pott’s disease, a known complication of tuberculosis.
“This disease was endemic in Roman times, but it is rare in the archaeological record due to the fact that rarely does it develop skeletal changes,” explained Scorrano.
“At the time of his death, the man was suffering from it and most probably suffered strong back pain, exacerbated by exertion or coughing and sometimes accompanied by sciatica; muscle contraction, which causes pain, and generalized weakness, especially in the lower limbs, limits the mobility of those affected."
Even before this man died under a flurry of searing hot ash and smoke from Mount Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago, it looks like he may have lead a pretty miserable life.