One of humanity’s most enigmatic ancient texts – the Dead Sea Scrolls – may have originated in different locations other than their namesake suggests, according to an analysis of DNA “fingerprints” extracted from the animal skins that the texts were written on.
First discovered in the 1940s, the Dead Sea Scrolls contain more than 25,000 fragments of ancient religious manuscripts, among them some of the oldest copies of books of the Hebrew Bible. The largest collection of the scrolls was discovered in 11 caves located in Qumran near the Dead Sea, all of which date back to the Hellenistic-Roman period between the 1st and 3rd centuries BCE.
"The discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made," said Oded Rechavi, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, in a statement. However, determining the origin and purpose of the scrolls has been limited because many were excavated out-of-order while others were acquired from antiquity dealers who could not trace their origins.
"It poses two major challenges: first, most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments, which had to be sorted and pieced together, with no prior knowledge on how many pieces have been lost forever, or – in the case of non-biblical compositions – how the original text should read," Rechavi added. "Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any given text could change dramatically."
To piece together the scroll puzzle, an international team of researchers turned to a process known as paleogenomics. Each scroll is written on a piece of animal hide, which allowed researchers to extract ancient DNA in order to determine what type of animal was used to make the parchment, where it was located, and how each animal might have been related to additional animals whose hides were used to make other related scrolls.
The researchers determined that of the parchments analyzed, most were made of sheep – a finding that was not previously known. Further analysis found that scrolls made from the same animal were likely related while those from closely related sheep were likely even more closely linked in their historical context.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that two pieces of parchment thought to belong together actually came from two separate animal species – a sheep and a cow – suggesting that the texts were likely unrelated. The cow was likely written elsewhere as the grazing animals weren’t raised in the Judean desert, suggesting that some of the scriptural scrolls may have been imported from outside of Qumran. Deeper investigations into the writings of the texts show that different versions of the books were circulating through society simultaneously and, unlike the Bible and Torah, the holiness of the book was likely not specific to its words alone.
"This teaches us about the way this prophetic text was read at the time and also holds clues to the process of the text's evolution," said Rechavi.
The full results of the study are published in the journal Cell. The research team hopes to apply the same methods to other ancient written texts containing biological materials for future analysis.