[Paleopsych] NYT: After 2, 000 Years, a Seed From Ancient Judea Sprouts
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Wed Jun 15 01:18:41 UTC 2005
After 2,000 Years, a Seed From Ancient Judea Sprouts
By STEVEN ERLANGER
JERUSALEM, June 11 - Israeli doctors and scientists have succeeded in
germinating a date seed nearly 2,000 years old.
The seed, nicknamed Methuselah, was taken from an excavation at
Masada, the cliff fortress where, in A.D. 73, 960 Jewish zealots died
by their own hand, rather than surrender to a Roman assault. The point
is to find out what was so exceptional about the original date palm of
Judea, much praised in the Bible and the Koran for its shade, food,
beauty and medicinal qualities, but long ago destroyed by the
"The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree," says Psalm 92.
"They shall still bring forth fruit in old age. They shall be fat and
Well, we'll see. Dr. Sarah Sallon, who runs a project on medicinal
plants of the Middle East, notes that the date palm in ancient times
symbolized the tree of life. But Dr. Elaine Solowey, who germinated
the seed and is growing it in quarantine, says plants grown from
ancient seeds "usually keel over and die soon," having used most of
their nutrients in remaining alive.
The plant is now 11.8 inches tall and has produced seven leaves, one
of which was removed for DNA testing. Radiocarbon dating in
Switzerland on a snip of the seed showed it to be 1,990 years old,
plus or minus 50 years. So the date seed dates from 35 B.C. to A.D.
65, just before the famed Roman siege.
Three date seeds were taken from Level 34 of the Masada dig. They were
found in a storeroom, and are presumably from dates eaten by the
defenders, Dr. Sallon says.
Mordechai Kislef, director of botanical archeology at Bar-Ilan
University, had some date seeds from Ehud Netzer, who excavated Masada
in the 1970's. "They were sitting in a drawer, and when I asked for
one, he said, 'You're mad,' but finally gave me three," Dr. Sallon
said. "Then I gave them to Elaine, who's an expert on arid agriculture
and dates." Dr. Solowey said: "Well, I didn't have much hope that any
would come up, but you know how Sarah is."
Dr. Sallon, who is a pediatric gastroenterologist trained at
University College, London, came to Israel 20 years ago. She is the
director of the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center at
Hadassah Medical Organization, which she set up 10 years ago to study
natural products and therapies, from Tibetan and Chinese medicine to
the indigenous medicinal plants of the Middle East. The idea is to
preserve these plants and their oral histories in a modernizing
region, but also to domesticate them, evaluate them scientifically and
then try to integrate them into conventional medicine.
Dr. Solowey, who teaches agriculture and sustainable farming at the
Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, based at Kibbutz Ketura in
the southern Negev, works on finding new crops for arid and saline
areas like Jordan, Gaza and Morocco. She also works with Dr. Sallon to
domesticate indigenous plants that appear to have medicinal uses.
Dr. Solowey grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California and
studied horticulture, then turned away from commercial agriculture in
disgust, coming here in 1971. "I don't come to organic agriculture
from the hippie side, but as a frustrated agricultural scientist," she
"We've bred for yield and taste, but not hardiness, so we have a lot
of plants as hardy as French poodles, so we have to spray to protect
them, and then we pay the price," she said. "There isn't a cubic
centimeter of water in the San Joaquin Valley that isn't polluted with
She planted the date seeds at the end of January after trying to draw
them out of their deep dormancy. She first soaked the seeds in hot
water to soften the coat, then in an acid rich in hormones, then in an
enzymatic fertilizer made of seaweed and other nutrients.
"I've done other recalcitrant seeds," she said. "It wasn't a project
with a high priority. I had no idea if the food in the seed was still
good, but I put them in new pots in new potting soil and plugged them
into drip irrigation and kind of forgot about them."
About six weeks later, she said, "I saw the earth cracked in a pot and
much to my astonishment, one of these came up."
The first two leaves looked odd, she said, very flat and pale. "But
the third looked like a date leaf with lines, and every one since has
looked more and more normal - like it had a hard time getting out of
Lotus seeds of about 1,200 years of age have been sprouted in China,
and after the Nazis bombed London's Natural History Museum in World
War II and a lot of water was used to put out the fire, seeds of 500
years of age also germinated.
"But no one had done it from 2,000 years old," Dr. Sallon said.
In the time of Pliny, forests of date palms covered the area from Lake
Galilee to the Dead Sea and made Jericho famous; a date palm features
on ancient coinage, as it does on the current Israeli 10-shekel coin.
The date palm symbolized ancient Israel; the honey of "the land of
milk and honey" came from the date. It is praised as a tonic to
increase longevity, as a laxative, as a cure for infections and as an
aphrodisiac, Dr. Sallon said. But the dates of Judea were destroyed
before the Middle Ages, and what dates Israel grows now were imported
in the 1950's and 60's from California and originated elsewhere in the
The Prophet Muhammad considered the date of great importance for
medicine, food, construction and income, and it is described in the
Koran as a "symbol of goodness" associated with heaven.
Dates need to grow 30 years to reach maturity and can live as long as
But it is the female date that is considered holy, and that bears
fruit. "Men are rather superfluous in the date industry," Dr. Sallon
"O.K, I have a date plant," Dr. Solowey said. "If it lives, it will be
years before we eat any dates. And that's if it's female. There's a
50-50 chance. And if it's a male, it will just be a curiosity."
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