Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Fingerprinting DSS DNA

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Ancient DNA extracted from Dead Sea Scrolls parchments allows rare glimpse into world of Second Temple Judaism. The researchers developed sophisticated methods to deduce information from tiny amounts of ancient DNA, used different controls to validate the findings, and carefully filtered out potential contaminations (IAA press release, courtesy of the Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs).

PaleoJudaica has long been interested in DNA analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Back in 2009, I collected links to a number of relevant posts. And in 2006 I was noting mention of early research aimed at sorting fragments into scrolls based on their DNA. It looks as though specialists have made quite a lot of progress since then.

The press release mentions a few specific cases. Two fragments of the Book of Jeremiah now definitely form a separate manuscript, made of cow hide rather than the more common sheep hide. This confirms that the Qumran library included variant copies of scriptural (and other) books that had somewhat different texts.

The manuscript of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice found at Masada is made from the hide of a sheep whose DNA is distinct from the from the sheep who hides were normally used for the Qumran scrolls. Arguably, then, it originated from a different group. But I would like to see some more details before I am convinced that we can interpret the evidence that precisely.

Likewise, the DNA of a fragment of Isaiah had a different profile from the other Qumran manuscripts. It is possible that indicates that it came from somewhere other than the Qumran caves.

These are intriguing findings, but they are still very preliminary, based on testing of a small sample of fragments. As the researchers profile more scrolls, we will learn more with more confidence.

The full, very technical, article is published in Cell: Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Follow the link for the full list of authors.

An article in the Smithsonian opens with a human interest account of how the idea for the research originated in a chance encounter on a bus: Ancient DNA Yields New Clues to Dead Sea Scrolls. A sensitive genetic fingerprinting technique could help scholars learn more from thousands of fragile parchment fragments (Josie Glausiusz).

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