From the ancient ashes of Vesuvius, human DNA

In the early 1930s, archaeologists in Pompeii made a remarkable discovery: the skeleton of a man who died when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, lying on what had been a wooden sofa, his arms folded under head and legs lying on the ground.

The resting figure is reminiscent of the character of Casanova played by Marcello Mastroianni in the 1961 film “Divorce Italian Style”. Portrayed by Mastroianni, the ideal Italian man of the 20th century, the “sciupafemmine” had a resigned air, touched by a melancholy that suggested indolence and a life of amorous disaster. Italian actress and writer Marta Mondelli described him as “a lonely, charming, not necessarily handsome, but seductive man who loves being alone almost as much as he loves women and their company”.

“In the movie, Mastroianni wants to rid the world of his annoying wife, who keeps asking him to say he loves her,” said Fabio Macciardi, professor of molecular psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine. “Fed up, he runs away from their room, prepares a sofa and dreams of courting his teenage cousin. This is how I imagine the man from Pompeii.

Dr. Macciardi is part of a team of geneticists and archaeologists who reported in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday that they had successfully sequenced the genome of this hypothetically lazy Latin lover. It was the first time that a full stretch of mitochondrial DNA from Pompeian human or animal remains had been genetically decoded.

“The study is exciting because it shows that DNA is preserved from cities buried by the Vesuvian eruption despite high temperatures,” said David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, who was not involved in the research.

The authors of the article, Gabriele Scorrano, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen, and Serena Viva, a burial archaeologist from the University of Salento, believe that ash and pumice released during the explosion may have provided a hedge against DNA-degrading environmental factors, such as the atmosphere. oxygen.

The idea for the project was born in 2017 when the anthropologist Pier Francesco Fabbri facetiously asked Dr. Macciardi and Dr. Scorrano to help him sequence one of his ancient ancestors, the recumbent male from Casa del Fabbro.

“The joke is that Fabbri is the plural of Fabbro,” Dr. Macciardi said. Although excavated in the early 1930s, the skeleton remained in the dining room during the devastating earthquake of 1980. It was not until 2016, during a restoration of the house, that the corpse was removed for study.

Dr. Scorrano and Dr. Serena extracted DNA from the remains of the recumbent man and a woman discovered on the floor of the room with her arms clutching the edge of a couch. Between his feet was a cloth bag containing a small treasure of 26 silver coins. “What were they doing there?” says Dr. Macciardi. “Were they finishing a meal and taken by surprise? Would they fall asleep? Perhaps they were seeking refuge.

At the time of the cataclysm, Pompeii would have had a population of around 12,000. Most people escaped; only about 1,200 bodies were recovered. A forensic analysis of the two bodies from the Casa del Fabbro revealed that the man was around 35 and the woman over 50. “It may have been his mother, his aunt or his wife,” Dr Macciardi said. The researchers targeted the DNA stored in the rock, a very dense bone that envelops the inner ear. But they could only sequence genetic material from the male corpse.

Comparisons of its DNA with genetic material recovered from 1,030 other ancient peoples and 471 modern Western Eurasian peoples suggested that its genetic makeup most closely resembled that of ancient peoples living around Rome during the Imperial era, during the earliest centuries of the common era.

“Modern and central Italians seem genetically different due to medieval events,” Dr. Reich said. “The results are consistent with the possibility that the inhabitants of Pompeii may have been part of the same population as the inhabitants of the city of Rome, about 150 miles away.”

Investigators have concluded that some of the Pompeii man’s ancestors originated from the island of Sardinia and others from Anatolia, the Asian part of modern Turkey. This reinforces the data of a previous article which deduced that two millennia ago the Italian peninsula was a hotbed of genetic diversity.

Why was the Pompeian male lying down? Tuberculous spondylitis, a disease of the spine also known as Pott’s disease, was detected in his DNA sequence. Common symptoms are back pain, lower extremity weakness and paraplegia. “The condition would have forced him to have little mobility,” Dr. Fabbri said. “The elderly woman next to him had arthritis, so she just stood there waiting, protecting a small hoard of coins.”

Dr. Macciardi was not fazed by Dr. Fabbri’s diagnosis of his proto-Mastroianni. “I imagine him having lunch quietly lying on his sofa, battling back pain and brooding old-fashioned Italian about how to eliminate his wife and marry his young cousin,” he said. declared. “Then the volcano erupts and he’s buried in pumice.”

There is an old Italian proverb: La morte mi trovera vivo. Death will find me alive.

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