In 1933, archaeologists excavating the remains of Pompeii found the bodies of two individuals, their skeletons almost perfectly preserved by the volcanic ash that buried their home in the wake of the Vesuvius eruption on August 24, 79CE. While many Pompeii residents fled the natural disaster, these two did not.
Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità
In an early 1930s photo (pictured above), the residents of the “House of the Craftsmen” slumped in the corner of their home’s dining room, almost as if they were having lunch just like their lives about to end. It’s a poignant scene that archaeologists have long tried to unpack, and now we have a better understanding of what happened to those two Romans, thanks to the latest advances in DNA sequencing technology.
In an article published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, a joint team of researchers from Italy, Denmark and the US shared that they recently determined the genome of one of the residents of the House of Craftmen — which is the first time that archaeologists have decoded mitochondrial DNA. by a resident of Pompeii, according to The New York Times.
Using genetic material drawn from its rock, a dense, pyramid-shaped bone segment that protects the inner ears, the team found that the male resident of the house suffered from spinal tuberculosis, or what’s more commonly known today as Pott’s diesease. Associated symptoms include back pain and paralysis of the lower body. “The condition would have forced him to have little mobility,” Dr. Pier Francesco Fabbri, one of the anthropologists who contributed to the paper, told The Times. It’s entirely possible that the man, who was about 35 years old when he died, would have struggled to escape Pompeii, even if he wanted to flee the burning city.
We now also have a better idea of the man’s ancestry. By comparing his DNA with 1,030 ancient and 471 contemporary West Eurasian individuals, the research team concluded that some of his ancestors came from Anatolia, which is now largely part of modern Turkey. He also had ties to the island of Sardinia. However, he had the most genetic similarities to people living in and around Rome during the destruction of Pompeii. This provides evidence for the suggestion that the Italian peninsula at the height of the Roman Empire was a melting pot of racially diverse people.
With so little left from that time, our understanding of the ancient world will always be imperfect, but thanks to advances in technology, we are constantly learning more about what life was like thousands of years ago. It wasn’t until late last year that researchers “unwrapped” one of the most pristine mummies ever using a CT scan. Professor Gabriele Scorrano, the principal investigator of the Pompeii study, told the BBC that future genetic studies could reveal more about the city, including information about the area’s biodiversity. “Pompeii is like a Roman island,” he said. “We have a photo from a day in 79CE.”
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