A Game of Hide Seeking
Online Science Editor Vincent Plant discusses how genome analysis is being used to solve the mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Genome technology has revolutionised our society. From being able to discover and alter single-cell mutations with the CRISPR gene editing tool to creating synthetic genomes, researchers are continually finding new avenues in which genomic studies can cause breakthroughs. Researchers writing in the journal Cell have applied it to an entirely different field – religion, and more specifically, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Genome technology has revolutionised our society
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish religious texts, written sometime between the third century BCE and the first century CE, which were found in the Qumran caves near the West Bank in the Middle East. They have great significance, seeing as they are the second oldest surviving Hebrew Biblical texts.
There is, however, one glaring problem – they are not in one piece. In fact, twenty five thousand different pieces have been discovered all throughout the Dead Sea area. Researchers trying to construct the texts together into one whole have a very difficult and precise task; after all, putting a section in the wrong area can entirely change our picture of what the scroll said and thus its interpretation today.
A team of scientists from Sweden, America, and Israel used DNA to tackle the problem. Using mitochondrial DNA samples, they discovered that two out of twenty-six fragments studied were made from the skin of a cow rather than a sheep – suggesting that these two fragments were, in fact, not part of the scrolls at all, and probably originated outside the region. This helps to limit the number of pieces that scholars have to fiddle with to compose the whole text.
They discovered that… two fragments were, in fact, not part of the scrolls at all
The two pieces of cow-skin text had different versions of the same text from the Book of Jeremiah, suggesting that there was less of a focus on exact transcription than there is in the modern day.
While DNA evidence generally isn’t needed to tell a cow skin from a sheep skin, previous studies had not found any cowhide present – demonstrating both how far techniques have advanced and how useful it can be when analysing these ancient documents. Professor Ira Rabin, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Germany, hopes that in future such studies might even be able to distinguish which flocks the sheepskins came from, allowing us to document whether the scrolls were local or imported.
While this is a highly specific discussion, it shows how a scientific approach and new technologies can help to resolve debates and solve problems from all fields. We just have to keep an open mind.