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2,000 years old victim of volcanic eruption in Pompeii reveals lifestyle of the Roman era

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The two individuals who died in Pompeii when the volcano erupted in Mount Vesuvius 2000 years ago (Pic. Courtesy sciencealert.com)

The devastation of the ancient city of Pompeii about 2,000 years ago due to eruption of Mount Vesuvius volcano is deemed as one of most catastrophic events in the history of humankind. Now with the help of genome sequencing historians are able to piece together information about one of the victims as per a report in sciencealert.com.

The sequencing reveals that the man, who died in the Pompeiian House of the Craftsman, was in his mid-life period and interestingly suffering from tuberculosis.

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 70 CE and in its wake killed in thousands the residents of Herculaneum and Pompeii cities and other communities. The pyroclastic volcano surges which were hot, teared through the victims or choked them with the lethal mix of pumice, gas and ash which came down from the sky.

In the past it was assumed that the victims’ DNA would have been ruined because the bone matrix where it is found would not have been able to withstand high temperatures. At the same time, all the ash that enveloped the sufferers helped to keep it intact too for 2000 years, protecting it against decay caused by factors like oxygen.

Thanks to the strides made in genome sequencing, scientists were able extract enormous information from the DNA fragments that in the past would have been considered too damaged. Doing precisely this, a new study led by archaeologist Gabriele Scorrano of the University of Rome in Italy and his colleagues used these latest techniques on the remains of two victims of Vesuvius.

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Both were discovered in a room in House of the Craftsman or Casa del Fabbro building. One was a man whose age was between 35 and 40 years and was five feet and four inches in height while the other is a female, whose age was more than 50 when she died and measured five feet.

DNA was taken out from petrous bone of the skulls of these two persons. The reason being it is one of the densest bones in the human beings and the chances of it having viable DNA are much higher.

Following the sequencing of the material extracted, it was found that the man’s bone had provided the required DNA for a reasonable analysis.

On comparing the material with the genomes from 1,030 ancient and 471 modern western Eurasian individuals it was indicated that the individual was an Italian. The DNA was found to be agreeable with that from people hailing from central Italy of the past and present.

Interestingly, some of the genes are found among the people of Sardinia Island, suggesting that genetic diversity during that period in Italian Peninsula was high.

Also, the large percentage of genes being related to the Italian people points out that the individual was not a slave.

The presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA in the genetic material indicates that the man was suffering from a harmful form of the disease, the spinal tuberculosis. When juxtaposed with the written records of that era by Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Galen and others, it is consistent. This disease had spread with the urban lifestyle coming into being and an increase in population densities.

While it may be argued that these deductions are not surprising but what is vital is that the study has provided another window for us to known about the life of those living in Pompeii, who died a violent death.

Summing up their work, the researchers in their paper wrote: "Our study – albeit limited to one individual – confirms and demonstrates the possibility of applying paleo genomic methods to study human remains from this unique site. Our initial findings provide a foundation to promote an intensive analysis of well-preserved Pompeian individuals. Supported by the enormous amount of archaeological information that has been collected in the past century for the city of Pompeii, their paleo genetic analyses will help us to reconstruct the lifestyle of this fascinating population of the Imperial Roman period."

The details of this study were published in Scientific Reports.