Jun 04, 2020 I Paul Seaburn

Ancient DNA May Help to Put the Dead Sea Scrolls Back Together Again

DNA analysis can’t tell us the identity of persons who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (at least not yet) researchers are currently using it to help identify the tiny pieces and fragments of scrolls in hopes of putting the puzzles back together … and THAT might help identify the writers. That catch is that they’re not using human DNA – they’re sequencing sheep and cow DNA. Wait … what?

“We used the fact that most scrolls are made from animal skins to “fingerprint” pieces based on DNA sequences. Genetic sorting of the scrolls illuminates their textual relationship and historical significance.”

In a study published this week in the journal Cell, Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University and other Dead Sea Scrolls researchers describe the challenge of identifying and sorting the tens of thousands of fragments -- a task that becomes even more daunting when factoring in the fact that many of them didn’t not come directly from the 11 Qumran caves near the Dead Sea but from various dealers and collectors. Oh, and don’t forget that they can’t be destroyed or damaged during the analysis. Looking for some common thread, the researchers decided on testing the DNA of the sheep, cattle and other animal skins most of the scrolls were written on.

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Sheepskin leather

“From each piece, they extracted ancient DNA of the animals that were used to make the parchments. Then, using a forensic-like analysis, they worked to establish the relationship between the pieces based on that DNA evidence and on scrutiny of the language within the texts under investigation.”

As described in the press release, surprises popped up immediately. First and foremost was the confirmation that most of the scrolls were written on parchment made from sheepskin, not cowhide. Logic dictates that pieces with the same ancient DNA (aDNA) were from the same sheep, so they were probably from the same document – a fact made more exciting by the discovery that many of the formerly unidentifiable pieces were now related. Even more interesting, pieces that were previously thought to be from the same scroll probably weren’t, possibly explaining differences in the telling of the same stories in different books of the Hebrew bible.

"Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book. The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance."

The preponderance of sheep over cow skins leads the researchers to speculate that the cow scrolls were written elsewhere, especially since the Judean desert climate makes cattle raising difficult. However, the DNA tests also show that some of the sheep parchment may have also come from places other than the Quran caves. In particular, a piece of the scroll related to the book of Isaiah appears now to be one that came from another site. But where? This opens the exciting possibility that more scrolls are yet to be discovered in other desert caves.

“This research has approached the study of the DSS from a multidisciplinary perspective, combining genetic analyses of the aDNA extracted from the DSS fragments with philological and historical examination of the ancient literary and religious works copied therein. Such an integrative approach could be applied to analyses of many additional scrolls and diverse manuscripts. We are hopeful that it will encourage others to collaborate and combine their expertise to solve the mysteries of the past.”

Multiple religions trace their origin stories and sacred texts to the Dead Sea Scrolls, giving them both an historical and a religious purpose. Studying ancient DNA is a powerful and barely destructive way of analyzing the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments that can tell a story that both complements what’s written on them as well has helping to see more of what’s written on them.

Dead men may tell no tales, but Dead Sea Scrolls never seem to stop.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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