In the early 1930s, archaeologists at Pompeii made a remarkable discovery: the skeleton of a man who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. lying on what had been a wooden bench, arms folded under his head and legs stretched out on the floor.
The figure in its repose recalls the Casanova character played by Marcello Mastroianni in the 1961 film “Divorce Italian Style”. As epitomized by Mastroianni, the ideal 20th century Italian man, the ‘sciupafemmine’ had a resigned aura, touched by melancholy that suggested slowness and a life full of romantic disaster. Italian actress and writer Marta Mondelli described him as “a lonely, charming, not necessarily beautiful, but seductive man who loves being alone almost as much as women and their company.”
“In the film, Mastroianni wants to rid the world of its boring wife, who keeps demanding that he say he loves her,” said Fabio Macciardi, a professor of molecular psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine. Tired of it, he runs out of their bedroom, prepares a couch, and dreams of courting his teenage niece. That’s how I imagine the Pompeii man.”
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 an entire piece 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 the cities buried by the Vesuvian eruption despite high temperatures,” said David Reich, a Harvard geneticist who was not involved in the study.
The paper’s authors, Gabriele Scorrano, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen, and Serena Viva, a funerary archaeologist from the University of Salento, speculate that the ash and pumice released during the blast may have provided cover from DNA-degrading environmental factors, such as atmospheric oxygen.
The idea for the project arose in 2017 when anthropologist Pier Francesco Fabbri jokingly asked Dr. Macciardi and Dr. Scorrano to help him sort out the sequence of one of his ancient ancestors, the reclining man from the Casa del Fabbro.
“The joke is that Fabbri is the plural of Fabbro,” said Dr. Macciardi. 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 home restoration, that the corpse was removed for study.
dr. Scorrano and Dr. Serena extracted DNA from the remains of the reclining man and a woman found on the floor of the room, arms wrapped around the edge of a couch. Between her feet was a cloth bag containing a small treasure of 26 silver coins. “What were they doing there?” said Dr. Macciardi. “Did they finish eating and were they surprised? Would they go to sleep? Maybe they took refuge.”
At the time of the disaster, Pompeii is said to have had about 12,000 inhabitants. Most people have escaped; only about 1,200 bodies have been recovered. A forensic analysis of the two bodies from Casa del Fabbro revealed that the man was about 35 years old and the woman over 50. “She could have been his mother, his aunt or his wife,” said Dr. Macciardi. Researchers focused on DNA stored in the petrous, a very dense bone that encases the inner ear. But they could sequence genetic material only from the male cadaver.
Comparisons of his DNA with genetic material recovered from 1030 other ancient and 471 modern Western Eurasian people suggested that his genetic makeup most closely resembled ancient people living around Rome during the Imperial era, in the first few centuries of the Common Era.
“Modern and central Italians look genetically different because of medieval events,” said Dr. Reich. “The findings are consistent with the possibility that the people of Pompeii may have been part of the same population as the people of the city of Rome, about 240 miles away.”
The researchers concluded that some of the Pompeii man’s ancestors came from the island of Sardinia and some from Anatolia, the Asian part of modern Turkey. This supports data from an earlier paper that concluded that the Italian peninsula was a hotbed of genetic diversity two millennia ago.
Why was the Pompeian male lying? Tuberculous spondylitis, a disease of the spine also known as Pott’s disease, was detected in its DNA sequence. Common symptoms include back pain, lower extremity weakness, and spinal cord injury. “The condition would have forced him to have little mobility,” said Dr. Fabbri. “The older woman next to him was suffering from osteoarthritis, so she stood there waiting, protecting a small treasure of coins.”
dr. Macciardi was unfazed by Dr. Fabbri’s diagnosis of his proto-Mastroianni. “I imagine him having lunch at his leisure while lying on his couch, battling the back pain and pondering in the old Italian style about how to eliminate his wife and marry his young cousin,” he said. . “Then the volcano erupts and he is buried in pumice.”
There is an old Italian proverb: La morte mi trovera vivo. Death will find me alive.