First Pompeiian Genetically Sequenced – and Guess Where He’s From

DNA analysis of a man killed in the Vesuvian eruption of 79 C.E. shows who his ancestors were, and weren’t

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
 The two individuals found in the “Casa del Fabbro” or "House of the Craftsman" (room 9) in Pompeii.
The two individuals found in the “Casa del Fabbro” or "House of the Craftsman" (room 9) in Pompeii. Credit: Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the year 79 C.E., Vesuvius blew. The eruption reportedly began at about midday and the horrendous results were evocatively described in letters written by Pliny the Younger, nephew of Pliny the Elder, to the Roman historian Tacitus.

Pliny didn’t actually mention Pompeii, the most famed of the cities frozen in time under volcanic ash, nor Herculaneum, which suffered the same fate. But he did imaginatively describe the eruption that killed his uncle in detail and at length, including this evocative sentence:

“Some people were so frightened of dying that they actually prayed for death. Many begged for the help of the gods, but even more imagined that there were no gods left and that the last eternal night had fallen on the world.”

How many people died in Pompeii, we shall never know. Historians speculate that the number is at least 2,000, with hundreds more in Herculaneum. Total related deaths in the region are estimated at 16,000. Some managed to escape, but those caught in the hellish volcanic spew – especially on Day 2 of this horror – were crushed, asphyxiated, burned. One body in Herculaneum suffered such heat shock that it seems his brain turned to black glass. If there is anything positive to say, it’s that death likely was instantaneous when the pyroclastic surges hit.

Casa del Fabbro in the ruins of Pompeii, near Naples.Credit: Mentnafunangann

Despite the geological drama, some actual bodies have been found in Pompeii – even though the heat of the volcanic emissions would have been hundreds of degrees Celsius. Now, an international team reports on the first successful sequence of genomic material from a Pompeiian: a man found in the Casa del Fabbro, or House of the Craftsmen (aka House of the Smith), in Pompeii.

The study by Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Rome and colleagues was published Thursday in the Nature journal Scientific Report.

In the Casa del Fabbro, the researchers found two bodies whose position and orientation indicate that both, too, died instantaneously. On the one hand, as the team points out, intense heat is bad for DNA recovery; on the other, being encased in volcanic ash may have helped protect them from degrading elements (like oxygen) to such a degree that, today, DNA could be extracted.

One was a man aged 35 to 40; the other a woman aged more than 50. They may have been dining: their skeletons were leaning on a couch of the type Romans were known to have employed when supping. It bears adding that a lot of Pompeiians were found at home; that could indicate collective unawareness of the possibility of a volcanic eruption, the team suggests – or simply a blasé attitude toward the tremors preceding eruption, which were relatively frequent and didn’t all result in explosions.

They seem to have been average in height for the time and place: the man was 164 centimeters tall (5 feet, 3 inches) and the woman was 153 centimeters ( 5 feet).

The man was found recumbent, his left arm and leg on the ground and his right limbs on the couch. The woman’s arms were gathered in front of her head and her legs were flexed on the ground. Her back was leaning against the couch. Their positions seem to scream: they knew something bad was coming.

DNA was extracted from both of them and the researchers tried to sequence both, but failed in the case of the woman. In the case of the man, they succeeded.

Who was this man? That cannot be said, but for the first time the antecedents of a Pompeiian could be elucidated through comparison of his DNA with that of 1,030 other people from the time, and 471 modern western Eurasians.

Casa del Fabbro at Pompeii. Credit: Mentnafunangann

Ancestry from Anatolia

All in all, the results indicate that the man was closest to modern Mediterranean peoples, chiefly central Italians and Sardinians, with a distant origin thousands of years ago in Anatolia.

His mitochondrial DNA (a sign of the maternal line) signaled the Near East, the Balkans and Sardinia, but not central Italians. His Y-chromosome was of a type common in East Africa, and a bit less so in Sardinia and the Near East.

Although hints of North African and Iranian ancestry are evident in some prehistoric Italians, they were not found in this individual, the team says.

The bottom line, the researchers suggest, is that this man’s male lineage arrived in the Italian peninsula from Anatolia during the Neolithic period, over 7,000 years ago.

“The Anatolia Neolithic component identified in the Pompeiian individual comes from a prehistoric migration, during the Neolithic period, by populations from the fertile crescent to Europe,” Scorrano says.

Asked if this could be related to the find that Neolithic (but not aboriginal) Britons also had distant Anatolian ancestry, he says not necessarily: “It is not possible to associate these findings with the antecedents of today’s Britons. The Anatolia Neolithic is present in different proportions in all the post-Neolithic samples.”

The outcome is surprising, in that Rome was a vast empire controlling vast territories and one might have expected to find genetic influences in the man’s genome from afar thanks in part to the massive slave trade. But they didn’t.

The snow-covered peak of Mount Vesuvius volcano is seen from the archaeological excavations of Pompeii in Naples, southern Italy.Credit: Cesare Abbate /AP

Their results suggest that the man was of local Italian peninsula stock, though whether he was a local Pompeiian or some internal migrant from elsewhere in Italy is impossible to say.

It can be said that he probably did not feel well. Separate analyses of the man’s skeleton identified lesions in one of his vertebrae that are hallmarks of spinal tuberculosis, but not of other bone-eroding conditions such as osteoporosis. The disease was identified in the fourth lower lumbar vertebra and may have spread to the third as well. Spinal tuberculosis, aka Pott disease, would have been painful and he may have suffered from muscular spasms as well.

Further suggesting that he had the disease, the DNA analysis found sequences associated with Mycobacterium – a group that includes the specific germ that causes tuberculosis. So, the inference is that the man had tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis was, the team wrote, one of the most common and devastating diseases in human history. Bones with the hallmark deformities have been found dating back to the Neolithic period, and it was endemic in ancient Rome, possibly driven by the crowding in Roman cities that would have been conducive to infection.

Many historians wrote of the disease, including Clarissimus Galen of Pergamum, the personal physician of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He described the symptoms of “phthisis” accurately enough, including fever and coughing up blood. Among his recommendations for cure was drinking milk – of human or other animal – to aid in its cure. This would have achieved a lot of nothing, but he also suggested sea air, which as an escape from a germ-infested crowd of people might conceivably have been more helpful.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, an ancient expert on chronic and acute disease, also described the horrors of phthisis at length but, incognizant of antibiotics, recommended application to the sun god. And apparently none other than Pliny the Elder suggested treating it by inhaling stringent smoke and licking limestone.

Pliny the Elder would die a horrible death near Pompeii, according to his nephew – and almost 2,000 years later, it seems his body may have, incredibly, been found. His identification was not based on genomic analysis, of course – it was based on the discovery of a skull found near Pompeii while heroically leading a rescue mission as Vesuvius erupted. The rescue did not work.

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