The image of the destruction of the Roman port city of Pompeii in 79 C.E. by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius is one that likely haunts the mind of any classics student. Its fate was fodder for terrifying descriptions of death and despair, and ever since the city’s ruins were discovered in the 16th century, its eerily preserved people have inspired fear and fascination. They’ve been the subject of furious study ever since—and somehow, researchers and the public are still captivated by preserved Pompeiians centuries later.
Now, for the first time, researchers have fully sequenced the complete DNA of a Pompeiian, offering an inside view of one person who died in the eruption’s aftermath.
A new study published Thursday in Scientific Reports provides more detail on the complex genetic make-up of a Pompeiian man. Academics analyzed petrous bones located at the base of the skull of two sets of remains found in the Casa del Fabbro, or House of the Craftsman. The bones belonged to a 5-foot-4 man in his late 30s or early 40s and a woman over 50 years old about five feet in height. DNA extracted from the female’s bones did not give sufficient information for a full analysis.
Both bodies were found lying on a triclinium eating space in what was likely the home’s dining room. Like others in Pompeii, they were going about their daily lives when disaster struck. In fact, the study’s authors write, more than half of “individuals found in Pompeii died inside their houses, indicating a collective unawareness of the possibility of a volcanic eruption or that the risk was downplayed due to the relatively common land tremors in the region.”
Further testing showed the man likely had spinal tuberculosis. Surviving reports of Rome suggest the disease was a common affliction at the time.
Though scientists had tried to sequence Pompeiian DNA before, previous attempts to study more than small strands failed. This time, they succeeded—but given the study’s small sample size and the fact that the woman’s DNA could not be analyzed, it’s unclear how similar research could fare in the future.
Researchers now hope to use the technique on other remains. Serena Viva, an anthropologist at the University of Salento and one of the study’s co-authors, tells the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida the work answers the longstanding question as to whether it’s possible to sequence entire Pompeiian genomes.
“In the future, many more genomes from Pompeii can be studied,” she says. “The victims of Pompeii experienced a natural catastrophe, a thermal shock, and it was not known that you could preserve their genetic material. This study provides this confirmation, and that new technology on genetic analysis allows us to sequence genomes also on damaged material.”
Ironically, the way Pompeii’s residents died may actually have made their DNA more salvageable, the study’s authors assert. They say the pyroclastic materials produced during the volcanic explosion may have actually “shielded” bones “from environmental factors that degrade DNA.”
“One of the main drivers of DNA degradation is oxygen (the other being water),” wrote Gabriele Scorrano, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen and the study’s lead author, in an email to CNN’s Sana Noor Haq. “Temperature works more as a catalyst, speeding up the process. Therefore, if low oxygen is present, there is a limit of how much DNA degradation can take place.”
While new research may reveal how rich Pompeiians’ lives were, tales from 79 C.E. show just how tragic and sudden their death really was.
Roman chronicler and administrator Pliny the Younger’s harrowing letters about the volcano’s sudden eruption still leave modern readers with an idea of the event’s horror. His uncle, renowned admiral Pliny the Elder, would perish in its wake.
“Some people were so frightened of dying that they actually prayed for death,” Pliny the Younger wrote. “Many begged for the help of the gods, but even more imagined that there were no gods left and that the last eternal night had fallen on the world.”
From the results, researchers learned that the Pompeiian man had a genetic profile consistent with the central Italian population of the Roman Imperial Age. His ancestors likely came to Italy from Anatolia, or Asia Minor, during the Neolithic Age.
“Our findings suggest that, despite the extensive connection between Rome and other Mediterranean populations, a noticeable degree of genetic homogeneity exists in the Italian peninsula at that time,” write the study’s authors.