Bringing an extinct tree back to life
While excavating in the Judean wilderness, archaeologists found hundreds of seeds from palm trees that grew in the arid region some 2,000 years ago. Dr. Sarah Sallon of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) wondered if these old seeds could sprout. If successful, they would prove to be not only incredibly resilient but also informative, as they would bring an extinct tree back to life.
The Judean Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is known from historical accounts for its sweet, large fruit, which even had medicinal properties. It played a significant role in the Judean economy for about two millennia—at the least from the fifth century B.C.E. until the 11th century C.E.—but then it went extinct centuries ago.
Partnering with scholars from the Université de Montpellier (France), Arava Institute of Environmental Studies (Israel), New York University Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), and University of Zurich (Switzerland), Dr. Sallon brought her idea to fruition. In 2008, they successfully germinated a 2,000-year-old seed from the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea and, appropriately, named this seedling “Methuselah.” This past year, they revealed the germination of six other seeds: one from Masada, four from Qumran, and one from Wadi Makukh. These were named “Adam,” “Jonah,” “Uriel,” “Boaz,” “Judith,” and “Hannah,” respectively. Radiocarbon dates of their seeds indicate that Methuselah, Hannah, and Adam date to the fourth–first centuries B.C.E., Judith and Boaz date to the mid-second–mid-first centuries B.C.E., and Uriel and Jonah date to the first–second centuries C.E.
For their most recent study, the researchers chose 34 well-preserved seeds from excavations in the Judean wilderness. Leaving one as a control sample, they prepared the others to be planted. First they soaked them in water for 24 hours, then gibberellic acid for 6 hours (to help embryonic growth), followed by Hormoril T8 solution for 6 hours (to help rooting), and finally KF-20 fertilizer for 12 hours. During this process, they discovered and removed one damaged seed. They planted the remaining 32 seeds in potting soil at the Arava Institute of Environmental Sciences in southern Israel. Of this group, only six germinated.
After eight weeks, the researchers added KF-20 fertilizer and iron chelate to the six seedlings’ soil. They repeated this step periodically to encourage growth.
Sallon and her team were able to study the genotypes of the seedlings. The genes of modern date palms come from two fairly distinct populations: an eastern variety (from the Middle East, Arabia, and Asia) and a western variety (from Africa). The researchers determined that the Judean date palm came from crossbreeding eastern varieties with western varieties. They could see waves of this crossbreeding in their seedlings. The seedlings from the older seeds—Methuselah, Hannah, and Adam—have the most eastern genotypes; Judith and Boaz are pretty evenly mixed; and the seedlings from the younger seeds—Uriel and Jonah—have the most western genotypes. This shows that the western varieties were added over time to the eastern (local and foreign) varieties. Farmers intentionally crossbred their local trees with foreign varieties to achieve desired traits.
Compared to modern date seeds, the ancient seeds were longer and wider. This corroborates the historical descriptions of these dates as being large. The descriptions of the dates’ sweetness are also accurate. It takes 4–10 years for female palm trees to bear fruit, and this past fall (in 2020) Hannah did indeed produce dates. The father was Methuselah. The researchers confirm the fruit has a subtle sweetness. The taste is interesting—not overly sweet with a lovely side taste of honey.
Overall, this study breathed new life into old seeds—and historical accounts—and helped illuminate the environment, agriculture, and economy of Roman Judea.
A version of this story first appeared in Bible History Daily in December, 2020
14,400-Year-Old Flatbreads Unearthed in Jordan Breads of all forms and tastes are cross-cultural staples of the human diet commonly used in religious ritual or as a delicious complement to any meal. The origins of bread-making in prehistory, however, remain complicated by poor preservation and by the sheer abundance of forms and methods of creation, often making it difficult for archaeobotanists to determine what can and cannot be considered bread.
Fruit in the Bible Seeds and fruit remains are exciting discoveries for archaeologists. Not only do they provide clues about ancient agriculture and diets, they can also provide radiocarbon data to help date buried strata.
The 10 Strangest Foods in the Bible There are hundreds of passages in the Bible that describe food, drink and dining. Many Biblical stories are set within the context of a meal. While most of these are about regular meals, others refer to more bizarre, extreme or supernatural cases of eating and drinking.
BAR Test Kitchen: Eat Like the Ancients This BAR feature hopes to introduce you to a new—yet old—kind of cooking. If you have ever wanted to eat like an ancient person, whether Babylonian, Roman, or Syrian, now you can. We’ve tracked down ancient recipes and tried to recreate them using modern ingredients, so that you, too, can enjoy these dishes. Join us on a gastronomical adventure!
Cheers! Scholars Brew Ancient Beer with Millennia-Old Ingredients What did ancient beer taste like? Modern brewers such as Dogfish Head Brewery and the Great Lakes Brewing Company have crafted beers inspired by ancient recipes, but a paper recently published in the microbiology journal mBio describes researchers actually using ancient ingredients to recreate ancient beers.
Scholars from the Hebrew Unive
A Feast for the Senses … and the Soul Few activities in life are as seemingly mundane yet vitally important as eating. Food is one of the bare necessities of life, and everyone—man or woman, young or old, king or servant—must eat. Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that many of the Biblical stories are set within the context of a meal.
Making Sense of Kosher Laws The origins of Jewish dietary or kosher laws (kashrut) have long been the subject of scholarly research and debate. Regardless of their origins, however, these age-old laws continue to have a significant impact on the way many observant Jews go about their daily lives. One of the more well-known restrictions is the injunction against mixing meat with dairy products. Not only do most Jews who observe kashrut avoid eating any meat and milk products together, many also wait a certain amount of time—30 minutes to a few hours—between eating meat and dairy.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.