Too sick to flee Pompeii due to volcanic eruption: DNA analysis solves a 90-year-old mystery

Giant volcanic eruption, but it has not escaped yet. This was the strange discovery that archaeologists made in the ruins of Pompeii in 1933. In 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius erupted, completely erasing Pompeii from the map – or rather, placing a blanket of lava and ash over the Roman city, whose population was About 20,000 people. The site has become an archaeological treasure, since the remains of people, human activity and animals have been specially preserved for two thousand years. Whole murals, streets and shops have already been found and the buried city has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Street in good condition in Pompeii.

Too sick to run

In 1933, archaeologists encountered something strange there: two people who were buried but did not appear to have escaped. They were lying in the dining room, bent over ‘triclinium’, sort of Cheese Lounge which people often ate at that time (see photo below). The researchers concluded from their position that, contrary to what you might suspect, they weren’t running to meet a catastrophe that came suddenly in the middle of the day.

Photo from 1933 of the discovery of both skeletons.


Now scientists may know why this duo exists: In an analysis of the entire genome, the genetic material of a 35- to 40-year-old man, researchers found traces of a bacterium that causes tuberculosis. A comprehensive examination of the vertebra showed that it was spinal tuberculosis: a serious form of tuberculosis also called “Pott’s disease” that affects the vertebrae, as shown in the photo. Perhaps he was too weak to escape.

A digital image and radiography of the vertebrae of a man with myeloid tuberculosis.

Scorrano, G., Viva, S., Pinotti, T. et al. Biological and palaeoarchaeological photo of two Pompeians who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Sci Rep 12, 6468 (2022).

Except for health, they may not have been suckers, or at least not a man. The two were found in the “Casa del Fabro,” or blacksmith’s house, although researchers now suspect that he was once a furniture maker. A successful furniture maker, you might suspect: the house showed a lot of luxury at the time, and was spacious enough for about thirteen people. Other occupations may have been carried out at home.

Archaeological first

A sick man and woman attacked by a disaster, appeal to the imagination. But above all this discovery is of great scientific value: it is the first time that the entire genome of human remains from Pompeii has been “sequenced”, that is, the DNA has been completely decoded, using bones excavated about 90 years ago. The powder was made from a piece of the man’s skull, which was then “read” by a DNA machine.

Pompeii as a portrait from AD 79. We have now opened up a new opportunity to investigate it.

Professor Gabriel Skoran, University of Copenhagen

Using this data, the researchers can now work on mapping the man’s genetic information. They compared his DNA with that of another thousand from the same period and with the DNA of about 400 modern Eurians. They find similarities with others of that period in that region, as well as with people from Sardinia.

This is not surprising, because the Romans traveled a lot after that and the empire stretched far and wide. At that time, the city of Rome alone had a population of one million. So says Professor Gabriel Scorano of the University of Copenhagen, principal investigator of New studyOn BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science radio programme, this resulted in significant genetic diversity in the population at the time. It is difficult to draw significant conclusions.

The two skeletons, on the left a 35-year-old man with a height of 1.64 m, and on the right a woman over 50 with a height of 1.53 m (average height at that time).

Scorrano, G., Viva, S., Pinotti, T. et al. Biological and palaeoarchaeological photo of two Pompeians who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Sci Rep 12, 6468 (2022).

Why is this discovery so important? “Pompeii is similar to the image of the population at that time in AD 79,” says Scorano. “This is unique in the world.” Genetic material can now be added to that image. “We’ve opened up a new opportunity for people to do research on this population.”

Working for the victims of a natural disaster is a hard-to-describe passion.

Anthropologist Serena Viva, University of Salento

She was also impressed by researcher Serena Viva, an anthropologist at the University of Salento (Italy). “Working on the victims of a natural disaster is an emotion that is hard to describe. These people are silent witnesses to one of the world’s most famous historical events.” And this is no exaggeration: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was the deadliest ever in Europe, killing 2,000 people from its direct impact.

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