Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Genetic" dating of the Illiad

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Not of direct relevance to PaleoJudaica, but possibly of interest.
Geneticists Estimate Publication Date Of The 'Iliad'

Rights information:
Public Domain |

Genomes and language provide clues on the origin of Homer's classic.
Originally published:
Feb 26 2013 - 4:30pm
Joel N. Shurkin, ISNS [Inside Science News Service] Contributor

(ISNS) -- Scientists who decode the genetic history of humans by tracking how genes mutate have applied the same technique to one of the Western world's most ancient and celebrated texts to uncover the date it was first written.

The text is Homer's "Iliad," and Homer -- if there was such a person -- probably wrote it in 762 B.C., give or take 50 years, the researchers found. The "Iliad" tells the story of the Trojan War -- if there was such a war -- with Greeks battling Trojans.

The researchers accept the received orthodoxy that a war happened and someone named Homer wrote about it, said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England. His collaborators include Eric Altschuler, a geneticist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, in Newark, and Andreea S. Calude, a linguist also at Reading and the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico. They worked from the standard text of the epic poem.

The date they came up with fits the time most scholars think the "Iliad" was compiled, so the paper, published in the journal Bioessays, won't have classicists in a snit. The study mostly affirms what they have been saying, that it was written around the eighth century B.C.

The story is also covered by ScienceDaily: Homeric Epics Were Written in 762 BCE, Give or Take, New Study Suggests.

Although this project told us nothing new, the method did give the same date as had been reached independently by other means. That may mean that it can be applied usefully in cases where we don't know the date of a text. But there are many questions that are not answered in these popular articles and the assumptions behind the method would need to be tested very carefully by linguists. But still, it may turn out to be a useful development, one potentially applicable to biblical texts etc.