The volcano killed him two thousand years ago. Now we’ve read his DNA

  • The cities destroyed by Vesuvius are an invaluable source of knowledge about the time of the early Roman Empire. Scientists are also trying to isolate DNA samples from the victims of the explosion
  • The victim whose genetic code could be read was a man shortly before 40 years old. Based on DNA analysis, we know he was probably born in the Apennine Peninsula – although his veins also flowed the blood of ancient inhabitants of Turkey.
  • So far, such a mixture has not been detected in any sample from this period. This particular piece of DNA is found today only among the people of Sardinia
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Vesuvius erupted in the fall of AD 79 in the early afternoon. The volcano not only spewed out a huge amount of dust – many years later the Roman historian Pliny the Younger would mention that the exhaust looked like a “pine tree” – but also a lot of lava which destroyed everything in its path.

Residents of surrounding towns (including Pompeii) did not expect Vesuvius to end their lives that day. The alarm was not given, although there were several earthquakes before the eruption. The aforementioned Pliny the Younger explained it by the fact that the inhabitants of the region of the volcano were not surprised by the tremors, since they were quite frequent in this part of the peninsula. In fact, excavations suggest that people did not leave until it was too late. Many died at home.

The exact number of victims to date is not known. However, the tragedy of the inhabitants of this part of the Roman Empire is our advantage – the proximity of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other cities destroyed by the eruption is a treasure trove of knowledge about this time (including a lot of dirt ). Now scientists have managed to uncover another piece of the Pompeian puzzle – for the first time they have read the full DNA of one of the victims of the explosion.

A typical Roman with interesting roots

At the time of the explosion, the unfortunate man was in the dining room of one of the Pompeian houses, today called “Casa del Fabbro” (“House of the craftsman”). It is known that he was around 35-40 years old and about 164 cm tall – typical of people living in Italy at that time. The eruption found it during the meal, and possibly a little after – some of the remains lay on the remains of the sofa which the Romans used to furnish dining rooms. He was also accompanied in the room by a woman, about 50 years old. They both died instantly.

The man (left) and the woman from the Casa del Fabbro.  Photo taken in 1934. The man (left) and the woman from the Casa del Fabbro. Photo taken in 1934 – Notizie degli scavi di antichità

After reading the genome, the scientists were able to compare it with other samples from the same period. The man’s DNA contains fragments found today only in Sardinian residents, and which were not found in samples collected from this period in Italy. This shows that the genetic diversity of the inhabitants of this part of the Empire was greater than previously thought – the mentioned fragment was probably introduced to this region of Europe in Neolithic times from the region of Turkey current. This means that more than two thousand years ago people migrated from there to today’s Italy.

The male’s DNA, in other respects, shares many characteristics with other inhabitants of this part of the Roman Empire, so scientists believe he was likely to be a Roman of Italian descent. . They published their reports in the journal “Scientific Reports”. The BBC was the first to report the discovery.

DNA: valuable but breaks down easily

Why exactly do scientists read the DNA of long-deceased people? Dr Martyna Molak from the Laboratory of Paleogenetics and Conservation Genetics at the Center for New Technologies at the University of Warsaw says it is invaluable research material.

– Each sequenced genome is another building block to build the genetic map of the world through history. The knowledge gained through genetic research can be compared to archaeological and historical knowledge, and thus recreate what life was like, where we came from and how we got here, explains the researcher.

Such tests, however, are not straightforward – mainly due to the lack of samples that can be analyzed. DNA degrades easily. The high temperature is exceptionally unprofitable – a particularly acute problem in the case of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius. However, the conservation of genetic material is damaged by many environmental factors. – There are no rules here. The bone may be physically damaged, but the genetic material turns out to be well preserved. Or vice versa – the bone is fine, but the DNA is degraded. Two bones from the same individual can have a completely different degree of DNA preservation, which depends on the availability of air, the presence of microorganisms, etc. – explains the researcher.

Scientists also need to be careful when evaluating samples. For example, in the analyzed man, traces of tuberculosis were detected, but mainly due to the bone analysis. The genetic analysis was not so clear cut. – When we die, the micro-organisms for which our body is a habitat also die with us. They then leave their DNA, which we can analyze. The problem is that the bacterium that causes tuberculosis has many cousins ​​that are harmless to humans, mostly living in the soil, but genetically often difficult to distinguish from the pathogenic parent, says Dr. Molak.

Genetic heritage research also in Poland

By the way, it should be mentioned that research on the DNA of ancestors is also carried out in Poland. They are led, among others, by teams of prof. Marek Figlerowicz from the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań and prof. Piotr Węgleński from the Center for New Technologies at the University of Warsaw (this is where the Laboratory of Paleogenetics and Conservation Genetics operates, where Dr. Molak works).

– We try to recreate the history of Poland since the Neolithic [nazwa epoki trwającej od 5 do 2 tys. lat przed naszą erą — przyp. red.] after the Middle Ages: check what was the genetic composition of these areas, where did the people who lived there come from, when they arrived, what was the intensity of these migrations, who they looked like, is there a genetic continuity between the ancients and the current inhabitants? from Poland – explains Dr. Molak.

Such research has been carried out in Poland for several years, but only recent advances in techniques for manipulation and analysis of genetic material have made it possible to carry it out on a larger scale. – Thanks to this, we can test increasingly old samples, as well as test more of them for the same price – which is of great importance – says the researcher.

He also adds that research in Poland is not facilitated by the fact that for many centuries in pre-Christian times the bodies of the deceased were mainly burned; a problem similar to that of the victims of Vesuvius. – Therefore, as far as I know, no one has yet succeeded in extracting useful genetic information from such material – explains Dr. Molak.

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