Tech UPTechnologyThey sequence the genome of an inhabitant of Pompeii

They sequence the genome of an inhabitant of Pompeii

The eruption of Vesuvius is considered one of the most devastating volcanic catastrophes in human history. It happened in 79 BC, it devastated Pompeii and ended the lives of thousands of people who lived in the city, in Herculaneum and in other settlements, victims of the intense heat of the pyroclastic waves that the volcano sent to its surroundings or asphyxiated by the gas , the ash and the pumice stone that rained from the sky.

Now, a group of scientists has succeeded in sequencing the genome of a man who was in the middle of his life when the disaster struck and has discovered, in addition to his genetic profile, that he suffered from tuberculosis .

This is quite a discovery since it has always been thought that the high temperatures that occurred would have destroyed the bone matrix in which the DNA resides and therefore its analysis would be unfeasible. However, the ash that covered the victims and preserved their fate for almost two millennia could have acted as a shield against environmental factors, such as oxygen, that induce further degradation.

Previous attempts to analyze the DNA of ancient Pompeians used polymerase chain reaction techniques, returning short segments of DNA from human and animal victims, and suggesting that at least some of the genomic information had survived the ravages of the volcano and at the time

Today, advances in genome sequencing have dramatically increased the information that can be obtained from fragments of DNA that were previously too damaged to be viable.

In their new study, archaeologist Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Rome and colleagues attempted to apply the new techniques to the remains of two human victims of Vesuvius. The two were found in a room in a building now known as the Casa del Fabbro or Casa del Artesano. The first individual was a male, between 35 and 40 years old at the time of death, measuring about 164.3 centimeters. The second was a woman, in her 50s when she died, measuring around 153.1 centimeters. Both heights coincide with the Roman averages of the time

From these individuals, the researchers extracted DNA from the petrosal bone of the skull , one of the densest bones in the body and therefore one of the most likely to retain viable DNA. Using identical methods, material from both bones was extracted and sequenced. However, only the man’s produced enough DNA for reasonable analysis.

The team compared the sample to the genomes of 1,030 ancient and 471 modern individuals from western Eurasia. The results suggest that the man was Italian , as most of his DNA matches that of people from central Italy, both in ancient times and today. However, there were some genes that are not seen in the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, but are found on the island of Sardinia. This suggests, according to the researchers, that there was a high level of genetic diversity throughout the Italian peninsula during the time that man lived.

The hypothesis makes sense given how widely ancient Romans moved and how many slaves they imported from other regions. The high proportion of genes associated with the Italian population suggests that the man was Italian, not a slave.

Interestingly, the genetic material obtained from his stony bone showed evidence of the presence of DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis , the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. A careful study of his vertebrae suggests that he suffered from spinal tuberculosis, a particularly destructive form of the disease.

This is consistent with the written records of Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Galen, Caelius Aurelianus, and Aretaeus of Cappadocia. And it is that the appearance of an urban lifestyle and the consequent increase in population density during the Roman Empire facilitated the spread of tuberculosis, which was probably not uncommon.

The advance opens the door to learn more about the life of the inhabitants of Pompeii , who died horribly and massively by the eruption of Vesuvius. “Our study, although limited to a single individual, confirms and demonstrates the possibility of applying paleogenomic methods to study human remains from this unique site,” the researchers write in their paper. “Our initial findings provide a basis for further intensive analysis of well-preserved Pompeian individuals. Supported by the enormous amount of archaeological information that has been collected over the last century for the city of Pompeii, their paleogenetic analyzes will help us reconstruct the style of Pompeii.” life of this fascinating population of the Roman imperial period.”


Referencia: Scorrano, G., Viva, S., Pinotti, T. et al. 2022. Bioarchaeological and palaeogenomic portrait of two Pompeians that died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Scientific Reports. DOI:

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