Recent Headlines: The Marvels of DNA Testing

DNA testing has come a long way and today, as it’s being used to trace the ancestry of the ancient bones discovered during archeological digs. Researchers in Italy are all abuzz because they learned something quite surprising and intriguing when they tested the ancient mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from one of the skeletons found buried in an ancient Roman cemetery. The bones, which date back 2,000 years, show a link to East Asian ancestry.

Thanks to isotopic evidence, researchers have found that around 20% of the sample currently analyzed was not born in the vicinity of Vagnari. The mtDNA points to the assessment that at least one individual came from East Asian descent. It shows that the people who resided in the region thousands of years ago were not native and belonged to foreign locations. Researchers theorize they somehow found themselves in Vagnari, traveling across the borders of the Roman Empire. The finding can shed light on topics, such as “globalization, human mobility, identity, and diversity in Roman Italy.”

One theory regarding the presence of East Asians in the early Roman Empire is that they lived between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were most likely slaves or workers. The burial plot had a single pot, which helped archeologists date the approximate time of burial. They were also able to indicate that his burial was disrupted in some way (during the ancient past) and someone was actually buried on top of his body.
Questions left unanswered include how recently the subject or his ancestors departed East Asia or if more people followed his lead. However, by analyzing the oxygen isotope evidence, it is known that he was not born in Italy and that he most likely originated outside of the Roman Empire.

At the time of the burial, Vagnari was an Imperial estate belonging to the emperor of Rome, but controlled by a local administrator. Workers were brought in to satisfy the industrial needs of Vagnari, which included generating tile and smelting iron. The tiles were used to create roofs for buildings and also served as grave covers for the people laid to rest in the cemetery. Researchers have come to this conclusion by finding fragments of tiles in and around Vagnari that bear the markings “Gratus Caesaris.” When translated, it means, “slave of the emperor.”

Archeologists also learned a lesson by excavating this site. A common practice is to assess grave goods to identify the origin of ancient remains. However, the goods found in the grave are not connected to the descent of the remains.

The research at the Vagnari site was made possible with funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. In March, the results will be further discussed at the Roman Archeology Conference at Oxford, England, and finding will appear in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.