Date palms were one of the first fruits to be domesticated and were traded widely through the ancient world. In Roman times, Judean dates were famous for their size and quality, but the groves were destroyed in wars and conquests. The successful germination of 2,000-year-old seeds has brought the variety back from the dead.
Date palms have been grown in the Middle East for around 7,000 years, becoming a symbol of the region and a staple food. Since dates only fruit in hot climates, they became a major trading item. Writing from the era celebrates the Judean dates in particular as being larger, tastier, and having extra medicinal properties compared to those grown anywhere else.
However, the cultivated versions need human intervention to thrive, and by the 19th Century, the last groves in what is now Israel were gone. Modern scholars – and those who know the delight of sticky date pudding – were left to wonder whether Judean dates really were that good or if they just had excellent public relations. To answer this question, botanists have succeeded in growing six date palms from 2,000-year-old seeds collected at archaeological digs.
In 2005, Dr Sarah Sallon of Hadassah Medical Organization succeeded in germinating a 1,900-year-old seed found at Masada, famous for a last stand of Jewish rebels against the might of Rome. Named Methuselah, it was the oldest seed ever recorded as sprouting, thus proving at least one claim that Judaean dates store exceptionally well.
In Science Advances, Sallon has now announced success in growing palms from six more date seeds collected at four archaeological dig sites of similar age, proving the original was no fluke.
Sallon also compared dates found at these digs with those grown commercially today and with wild varieties. The ancient dates were around a quarter longer and wider than current versions, making them much bigger than wild plants, justifying one aspect of the hype. We'll have to wait a bit longer to learn how they taste, let alone re-establish the ancient groves.
Modern fruits are usually far larger than ancient versions, thanks to selective breeding and modern agricultural practices, so this was a surprise. Sallon considers this evidence that ancient Judeans were sophisticated farmers, at least for dates. Dates have two main gene pools, originating thousands of kilometers apart. When Sallon tested her newly grown plants' genetics, she found an unusual mix, with primarily western paternal and eastern maternal lines.
Not all such ancient seeds survive so long. Sallon and colleagues had access to 32 seeds collected from four archaeological sites and planted them at a quarantine facility in Kibbutz Ketura. The six that germinated are considered so precious, they have been assigned Biblical names and years later are still being grown in carefully protected pots.