Ancient DNA offers clues to physical origins of Dead Sea Scrolls

Genetic analysis is revealing remarkable insights—about where they came from, how they fit together, and more.

It is one of the world’s most daunting jigsaw puzzles: 25,000 pieces of ancient parchment comprising the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers have spent decades trying to laboriously piece together the 2,000-year-old fragments, most of which were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s in 11 caves near a site called Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Now a team of Israeli, Swedish, and American researchers has applied advanced genetic testing to the material, a parchment made from animal skins. Their findings, published Tuesday in the journal Cell, show that at least some of the material likely originated from other parts of the region rather than at Qumran.

They also hint that Judeans of the period were less concerned with the precise wording of ancient religious texts than later Jews and Christians.

But what excites scholars the most is the prospect of using ancient DNA to match the bewildering bits and pieces, some of which contain only a few letters.

“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,” said geneticist Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University, who led the effort.

Using small samples extracted from a pair of scroll fragments, for example, the team determined that two pieces long thought to be part of one manuscript from the biblical book of Jeremiah were in fact unrelated, as one was made from sheep hide, the other from cow hide.

“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,” said Noam Mizrahi, a biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University. “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 scrolls—written between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D.—include biblical texts as well as a variety of hymns, prayers, and apocalyptic works. They were hidden in jars in caves near Qumran, home to members of an ascetic Jewish sect called the Essenes.

Archaeologists initially thought the scrolls were the product of scribes living in the Qumran community. But many scholars now believe they were a collection of documents largely written in Jerusalem and other places in Judea. (Here's how researchers realized a museum's collection of Dead Sea Scrolls were forgeries.)

All but two of the 26 fragments tested were made from sheep hide. The researchers were even able to distinguish the genetic signature among different flocks of sheep. Some of the writings that are similar in style turned out to be made on the hides of animals with similar DNA.

“The existence of this Qumran scribal practice has been doubted, but this finding would certainly support it,” said Sidnie Crawford, a biblical scholar at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who was not involved in the study. Such discoveries could allow researchers to better understand the many Jewish sects in the tumultuous era that ended when Romans suppressed a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70.

Pnina Shor, who served as head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit for the past decade, said that the ancient DNA work will complement efforts at Israeli and German universities to create computer algorithms that can find each fragment’s proper place.

“This will allow us to use different approaches to the puzzle,” she adds. “And this study is just the start.”

Andrew Lawler is a journalist and author who has written about controversial excavations under Jerusalem and the search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke for National Geographic.

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