Mount Vesuvius — a stratovolcano located on the Gulf of Naples — erupted at around noon on August 24, 79 AD, famously submerging the towns of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum in “pyroclastic” flows of searing gas and volcanic matter. Archaeologists believe that around 2,000 of Pompeii’s 11–12,000 residents perished in the catastrophe, with the settlement lying buried under some 13–20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice until it was rediscovered during excavations in 1763. Today, much of the city has been uncovered by archaeologists, with the town providing an unprecedented snapshot of life in the Roman Empire.
Previously, scientists had managed to sequence only two short stretches of mitochondrial DNA from human and animal remains preserved in the ruins of Pompeii.
In their new study, geogeneticist Professor Gabriele Scorrano of the Tor Vergata University of Rome and his colleagues analysed and extracted DNA from the remains of two individuals who were found entombed in the Casa del Fabbro, or the “House of the Craftsman”.
Based on the nature of the skeletons, archaeologists have concluded that the remains belonged to a man aged around 35–40 at the time of his death, and a woman aged over 50.
The researchers succeeded in sequencing the entire genome from the man’s remains, whereas a partial reconstruction only was possible for the woman.
The team then compared this sequence with those obtained from 1,030 other ancient and 471 modern Eurasian individuals.
They found the man’s DNA to be the most similar to that of modern central Italians, as well as those other individuals who lived in Italy during the age of the Roman Empire.
However, analysis of the man’s mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA revealed the presence of certain groups of genes that are commonly found in ancient people from the island of Sardinia, but not from those who lived elsewhere in Italy.
This, the team said, suggests that there was a high genetic diversity during the Roman period across the Italian peninsula.
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Paper author and anthropologist Serena Viva of the University of Salento told the Guardian that these two conditions “could have been the reason for which they waited for it all to finish, maybe in the security of their home, compared to other victims who were fleeing and whose remains were found in open spaces”.
Explaining how they were able to successfully recover such ancient DNA, the team said that it was “possible that the pyroclastic materials that covered the remains could have shielded them from environmental factors, like the atmospheric oxygen that degrades DNA”.
The study, the team concluded, demonstrates the possibility to retrieve ancient DNA from the human remains at Pompeii and learn more about the genetic history and lives of the ancient town’s residents.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.