An East Asian in Ancient Italy
HOW did a man of East Asian origin end up in the ancient Roman Empire 2,000 years ago? That was the question facing archaeologists after they made a fascinating discovery in southern Italy in 2009.
The site was an ancient Roman cemetery at Vagnari, 40 miles (60 km) west of Bari. Seventy-five human skeletons were uncovered. Tests on the bones indicated that most of the people were born nearby. Yet, the skeleton of one man surprised the researchers. Analysis of his mitochondrial DNA showed that he had East Asian ancestry on his mother’s side.* His remains dated to the first or second century C.E. According to a report on the find, “this appears to be the first time that a skeleton with an East Asian ancestry has been discovered in the Roman Empire.” So who was this man?
“At first glance it’s tempting to link this fellow to the silk trade that flourished between China and Rome,” says the same report. However, it is thought that such trade was carried on by a series of intermediaries, or middlemen, with no one person actually making the whole 5,000-mile (8,000-km) trek between China and Italy.
What can the place where the remains were found tell us? In ancient times, Vagnari was a rural imperial estate—land controlled by the emperor—where laborers smelted iron and produced clay tiles. Many of the workers there were slaves, and it is likely that this Oriental was too. In fact, his burial was not that of a wealthy man. His surviving goods, which were buried with him, amounted to a single pot, and another body had been buried on top of his.
Why is this find of interest? The spread of the Christian message in the first century C.E. depended on how far the ancients traveled. The Bible reports that after Pentecost 33 C.E., the good news was carried far and wide by foreign visitors to Jerusalem. (Acts 2:1-12, 37-41) At the very least, this skeleton suggests that about that time some people were traveling from East Asia to the Mediterranean region.*
Mitochondrial DNA analysis is unable to provide any information concerning paternal ancestry.
There is also evidence that Westerners were traveling to East Asia. See the article “How Far East Could Missionaries Go?” in the January 1, 2009, issue of The Watchtower.
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Skeleton of an East Asian man uncovered in an ancient Roman cemetery
© Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali-Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Puglia-Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Puglia