Human DNA from Pompeii

Victim’s genome is first to be fully sequenced.




The victims of the Pompeii eruption have long been familiar to visitors, but it is only recently that researchers have begun got look at them more closely, largely through molecular biology. A man and a woman were unearthed during the 1910s, found leaning against a low couch in a dwelling known as the House of the Craftsmen. And more than a century later, we have information about their genetics.


DNA still survived in the petrous bones, dense inner ear bones that are especially good locations for well-preserved ancient DNA. The man’s was so complete that the geneticists were able to sequence his entire genome.


When the researchers compared it to those of hundreds of other ancient and modern people across Europe and Asia, they found that it was most closely related to those from present day inhabitants of Central Italy and Sardinia. The man’s Central Italian ancestry was not unexpected, but no ancient Roman genome had ever yielded traces of Sardinian heritage. This is hardly surprising, since Pompeii was heavily involved in the export of fish sauce (garum), widely used throughout the Roman Empire.


There was more. The victim carried DNA that is responsible for tuberculosis, which suggests he was infected before he perished. This, also, was no surprise, for tuberculosis was commonplace in the region at the time.


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Image: The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov, painted 1830-1833, and held in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg.