Some people of Italian ancestry, like me, might have a surprise in the family tree—a man of east Asian descent, who was living and working 2,000 years ago in the boondocks near the heel of the Italian boot. The discovery is the first good evidence of an Asian living in Italy during Roman times.
Researchers found his body on an imperial Roman estate and took dental samples. Why examine teeth? Well, the water you drink at birth leaves a distinct signature in your teeth. That water signature is in the form of oxygen isotopes, atoms of oxygen with different numbers of neutrons. Isotopes say something about the latitude and elevation of your birthplace—which in the case of our mystery man definitely wasn’t southern Italy.
Then the researchers tested his mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through your maternal lineage. And this fellow had east Asian genes. The finding appears in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.
It's impossible to say if the man trekked to Italy himself or one of his ancestors did. But it’s clear that this first known Roman Asian wasn't some aristocratic diplomat. He was just a poor worker, buried with a single pot.
[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]