Their names are Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, & Hannah, and their ages are—well, actually, this a bit complicated. Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, & Hannah are date-palm trees, and although they were all planted in recent years, the seeds from which they germinated all came from ancient archaeological sites. These seeds, consistent with carbon dating, were about 2,000 years old. that they had waited 2 millennia to sprout.
The seeds of Judean date palms end up to possess remarkable longevity. A team led by Sarah Sallon, which planted these 6 trees, first tried in 2005 to germinate 2,000-year-old seed from the ancient fortress of Masada. To the surprise & delight of Sallon and her colleagues, it sprouted, and that they named that first date-palm tree Methuselah, who in Bible lived to the age of 969.
“I was so not expecting it,” says Sallon, a doctor at Hadassah Medical Center who got curious about date palms as medicinal plants. At the time, the team didn’t even think to require basic measurements, like seed weight or size, for comparison with modern date seeds. So after the success of Methuselah, they decided to undertake again, but more systematically. After all, was Methuselah a fluke, or were many date seeds viable after 2,000 years?
An archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem allowed Sallon to sift through dusty boxes of material recovered from a number of Israel’s most famous archaeological sites. She found many seeds for her purpose. “They were altogether various stages of disintegration,” Sallon says. “But some were in beautiful condition.” She picked 32 of the best-preserved seeds, and her collaborator Elaine Solowey planted them at a kibbutz in southern Israel. Solowey soaked the seeds in water and applied commercial plant hormones & fertilizer, but the protocol for planting them was essentially no different than for latest new mordern seeds.
5 of the 6 seeds that ultimately sprouted came from either Masada, the location of a famous siege during AD 74* that’s said to possess ended with the mass suicide of Masada’s defenders, or Qumran Caves, best referred to as the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (6th came from caves at Wadi Makukh.) At 2,000 years old, the seeds are actually contemporaries of those ancient events. Round the time Romans were laying siege to Masada and therefore the Dead Sea Scrolls were being written, these seeds were being formed.
“It’s quite remarkable this team of researchers managed to germinate seeds of that age,” says Oscar Alejandro Pérez-Escobar, who studies ancient dates at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. the very fact that the team has done it not just one occasion but now 7 times suggests that ancient seeds might be wont to resurrect genes that disappeared after thousands of years of breeding. “These ancient seeds might represent lost genetic diversity we don’t see any longer ,” Pérez-Escobar says. As date-palm growers adapt to global climate change & battle pests & diseases, they could want to tap into the pool of ancient genes hidden in archaeological archives.
Why date-palm seeds can remain viable for therefore long, nobody is sort of sure. The seeds are physically tough and, because they’re adapted to the desert, especially tolerant of drying out. But Sallon also points to the environment where they were found, near the Dead Sea . The Dead Sea is that the lowest place on Earth’s land. meaning it’s an especially thick layer of atmosphere to guard from radiation that would damage the seeds.
To understand how Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, & Hannah are associated with more modern date palms, the team also analyzed genetic markers from the seedlings. The seedlings were genetically quite different from each other. Methuselah & Adam were most closely associated with eastern varieties now found within the Arabian Gulf; Hannah & Judith to modern Iraqi varieties; & Uriel, Boaz, & Jonah to modern Moroccan varieties. the ancient seeds were also bigger & heavier than modern varieties.
Sallon helped name the seedlings. After Methuselah, she decided to continue with biblical theme. Adam sprouted within the fall, around Rosh Hashanah , the Jewish New Year , which celebrates the creation of the planet and of Adam & Eve. She originally named the tree Eve, but switched to Adam after genetic markers revealed that it had been a male tree. Judith came up a couple of months later, around Hanukkah, and was originally named Judah for the hero of the Hanukkah story, Judah Maccabee. Two more seedlings germinated round the spring harvest festival of Shavuot, when the Book of Ruth is traditionally read. So Sallon named those trees after Ruth & Boaz, Ruth’s second husband—until genetic analysis revealed that Ruth was also male. So Sallon changed the name to Uriel, after, this time, her own son.
Methuselah is now mature enough to supply pollen, and he’s actually become a father. Solowey used him to pollinate a contemporary female, and that they made dates. the 2 female date palms from ancient seeds, Judith & Hannah, haven’t yet reached sexual maturity, so no ancient date fruits are resurrected yet.
And even once they do, Sallon explains, the fruits they bear are unlikely to be just like those that people grew and ate 2,000 years ago. Once growers found date palm with all the qualities they liked, they likely kept “cloning” that single palm by taking cuttings. Farmers do an equivalent thing today with apple and pear varieties. Sexual reproduction—crossing a male and feminine tree—scrambles genetic lineages and introduces uncertainties. It’s same reason an apple seed from pink lady at the grocery is unlikely to yield perfect Pink Ladies when planted in your backyard. Ancient DNA are often resurrected, but re-creating the precise taste of an ancient fruit would be much harder.