Ancient Rome was more than just gladiators and emperors. But as the Roman civilization was extremely stratified — about 1.5 percent of the population controlled the government, military, commerce, and religious institutions — what we do know of it is "skewed," says Ed Yong at CNN's Light Years blog. But now, Vanderbilt University archeologist Kristina Killgrove wants to tell the story of the other 98.5 percent — slaves, commoners, tradesmen, soldiers — and plans to use DNA sequencing to trace where they came from, and where they ended up. "There are currently anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 skeletons knocking about in Italian warehouses, and most have been ignored because of lack of money and personnel," Yong says. Killgrove, who's been studying skeletons from lower-class cemeteries since 2007, has been busy measuring the chemical isotopes found in bones and teeth to track where the people came from. Her studies show that some individuals who ended up in these cemeteries could have come from as far away as North Africa, but researchers need to extract DNA and sequence it in order to pinpoint the exact origins, Yong says.
"This will mark the first time anyone has sequenced DNA from a Roman skeleton, and it is part of a growing field of 'molecular archaeology,' in which scientists turn the tools of modern genetics toward ancient civilizations," he adds. Killgrove is looking for public donations in order to fund her project, and has already raised more than $2,000. She aims to raise about $6,000, Yong says.