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Dead Sea scroll DNA sheds light on historic mystery

Published: 2020-06-04


Facilitated by the SciLifeLab National Genomics Infrastructure (NGI), researchers from Sweden and Israel have analyzed DNA from 40 fragments belonging to the Dead Sea scrolls in order to find out the origin of the animals that provided skin for the scrolls.

The DNA extraction from the more than 2,000-year-old scrolls was successful and the genetic information allows historians to clarify which text fragments belong together. By analyzing the genetic differences it is also possible to find out if the animals, used for the scrolls, lived far apart or close by. This provides evidence that the scrolls were not only written by the local jewish population and paints a clearer picture of how representative the texts were for Judaism at the time. The results was published in Cell.

The dead sea scrolls consist of around 25,000 fragments of parchment and papyrus found in 1947 in Qumran on the West Bank. Hidden away around 70 AD, the religious texts include, among other things, the earliest preserved biblical texts.

One of the big mysteries surrounding the Dead Sea scrolls is who actually wrote them. It is well known that there was a sect in Qumran that had beliefs and a way of life that differed greatly from the rest of the Jewish population at that time. So did all the scrolls come from this group, and therefore, only represented the thoughts and culture of a small part of the Jewish population?

“It is fantastic that we have been able to extract DNA from this material. These animal skins have been processed into parchments, stored in a dry and warm climate for thousands of years, and then handled again when recovered. Normally, you would not expect to encounter any DNA fragments like these”, says Mattias Jakobsson (SciLifeLab/Uppsala University), who co-led the study, in a press release from Uppsala University.

Mattias Jakobsson and his research team specialize in extracting and handling very old DNA. When they found out that a research group at Tel Aviv University was having trouble moving forward with their study, they suggested utilizing their facility. By making use of the facility’s state-of-the-art equipment, the Jakobsson group were able to investigate the 40 fragments, of varying size, that were sent from Israel.

“We have adjusted our methods to make them work for this material which required a little ingenuity. These fragments were terribly contaminated”, says Mattias Jakobsson.

For this reason, the researchers first mapped and removed all genetic information that matched human DNA. When all human DNA had been sorted out, they could determine what kind of animal skin had been used for specific fragments and which pieces came from the same individual animal; which is useful to know when trying to piece together fragments that have been broken up into many pieces. The genetic information could also reveal which animals had lived locally in Qumran and which animals that lived further away.

By being able to put together the right pieces of the puzzle with greater accuracy and remove previously incorrect ones, the researchers at Tel Aviv University have been able to draw new conclusions, supporting the thesis that the Dead Sea scrolls not only represent the local sect in Qumran but a major part of Judaism at the time.

Several of the texts appear to have been written elsewhere and except for the big genetic variation in sheep, the researchers also identified skin from cows, which was almost impossible to breed in the dry desert climate around Qumran, suggesting that these scrolls came from far away.

Photo: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities authority. Shai Halevi