In Herculaneum, the men and women buried by Vesuvius had different menus

The victims of the eruption of Vesuvius, in the year 79 of our era, do not stop revealing their secrets. Those of their tragic deaths, of course. But also those of their so prosperous life, in the era of triumphant ancient Rome. Their remains have just revealed the composition of their diet. The discovery, published in the journal Science Advances of August 25, suggests that the diets of women and men differed in this region at the time. In addition, the share of marine fish in the food of the time (all sexes combined) was higher than in the current Mediterranean diet, where the share of animal products continues to increase. A result that remains to be verified: the analysis was carried out on the bones of only 17 people, among the 340 victims whose remains were found, buried, under the beach of Herculaneum.

Let us first listen to Pliny the Younger, a direct witness of the disaster: “The houses around us were shaken so badly that they were threatened with an infallible fall. (…). We finally decide to leave the city. The terrified people fled with us ”, he tells in a letter to the historian Tacitus. All take refuge on the coast. “The sea seemed to be pushed back on itself, and as if driven from the shore by the shaking of the earth. (…) The shore was enlarged, and many fish had been left dry on the sand. On the other side, a dark and horrible cloud, torn by whirlwinds of fire, let out from its half-open flanks long trails of flame, like enormous lightning bolts. “ Pliny the Younger followed the disaster from Misene, a military port located 32 kilometers from Vesuvius. Sheltered, therefore, from the formidable fiery clouds spewed out by the raging crater.

The revelations of collagen

The people of Herculaneum were not so lucky. They hoped to find refuge under nine stone arches located on the seafront. Alas. Rolling down the slope at 700 km / h, these hot aerosols quickly caught up with them. This dust of gas, ash and fragments of rock, reaching several hundred degrees, “Boil the blood and explode the skulls in a fraction of a second”, explains Sébastien Lepetz, CNRS research director at the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN).

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The bones of six of these women and eleven of the men were sifted through a thorough isotope analysis. The authors first extracted collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body. They separated, by chromatography, the building blocks of this protein: amino acids. For fifteen of these amino acids, they measured, by mass spectrometry, the isotope composition of carbon and nitrogen. Finally, to interpret these isotopic data, the authors used probabilistic statistics.

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