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
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