Researchers has successfully decoded ancient DNA extracted from the animal skins on which the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. By characterizing the genetic relationships between different scrolls fragments, the researchers were able to discern important historical connections.
The research, conducted over seven years, is published as the cover-story in the journal Cell, and sheds new light on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“There are many scrolls fragments that we don’t know how to connect, and if we connect wrong pieces together it can change dramatically the interpretation of any scroll. Assuming that fragments that are made from the same sheep belong to the same Scroll,” explains Prof. Rechavi, “it is like piecing together parts of a puzzle.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls refers to some 25,000 fragments of leather and papyrus discovered as early as 1947, mostly in the Qumran caves but also in other sites located in the Judean Desert.
Among other things, the Scrolls contain the oldest copies of biblical texts. Since their discovery, scholars have faced the breathtaking challenge of classifying the fragments and piecing them together into the remains of some 1,000 manuscripts, which were hidden in the caves before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Today, most fragments are under the custody of a designated conservation laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority, where their condition is monitored by advanced scientific methods, and they are held in environmental conditions that emulate the caves where they survived for thousands of years.
Researchers have long been puzzled as to the degree this collection of manuscripts, a veritable library from the Qumran caves, reflects the broad cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism, or whether it should be regarded as the work of a radical sect (identified by most as the Essenes) discovered by chance.
“Imagine that Israel is destroyed to the ground, and only one library survives – the library of an isolated, ‘extremist’ sect: What could we deduce, if anything, from this library about greater Israel?” Prof. Rechavi says. “To distinguish between Scrolls particular to this sect and other Scrolls reflecting a more widespread distribution, we sequenced ancient DNA extracted from the animal-skins on which some of the manuscripts were inscribed. But sequencing, decoding and comparing 2,000-year old genomes is very challenging, especially since the manuscripts are extremely fragmented and only minimal samples could be obtained.”
A public domain image taken from Wikipedia