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New imagery from Pompeii yields surprising findings about ancient humans

Researchers in Italy are now using modern medical technology to shed more light on the ancient mystery of the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Two-and-a-half million people visit Pompeii every year, making it one of Italy's busiest tourist attractions.

    The ancient city, close to modern-day Naples, is famous for being frozen in time, preserved as it was when the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted more than 1,900 years ago, in 79 AD.

    Pompeii, buried in tons of volcanic ash, along with the remains of some 2,000 people killed, was first excavated in the 1800s.

    Those early discoverers poured plaster on the recovered bodies to better preserve them, but little was known about them.

    So, last month, researchers brought in a CAT scan machine, like the one you might find in a doctor's office.

    The machine penetrates the thick plaster and creates a 3-dimensional image of each body. The CAT scans reveal two big discoveries.

    First, many victims did not die from suffocation, as previously thought, but from the falling buildings.

  • MASSIMO OSANNA, DIRECTOR:

    From the analysis carried out on the bones, we have found a lot of broken skulls. This tells us many died from falling roofs under the pressure of the pumice. The pumice is very light but when it builds up two meters, it can collapse roofs and many died because of this."

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Second, the researchers are finding many of Pompeii's victims had practically perfect teeth, a reflection, perhaps, of a healthy Mediterranean diet low in sugar and high levels of fluoride in their water supply.

  • MASSIMO OSANNA, DIRECTOR:

    From the study, we discovered the absence of cavities in the teeth. This is very interesting, it is not completely surprising because we know about the Mediterranean diet and it's positive aspects.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The researchers plan to scan all 86 casts of the human remains to help us learn more about not only how the people of Pompeii died, but how they lived.

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