Category Archives: ISRAEL

Paleolithic Engraving Found on Burial Slab in Israel

Human Figure Detected on 14,000-year-old Burial Slab in Israel

HAIFA, ISRAEL—According to researchers Danny Rosenberg, György Lengyel, Dani Nadel, and Rivka Chasan of the University of Haifa have found an engraving on a Natufian burial slab discovered in northern Israel’s Raqefet Cave.

The human figure on a Natufian burial slab: Actual and illustration

The researchers suggest the image resembles a dancing shaman, or perhaps a person dressed as an animal, or even a lizard, and that Natufian burial rites may have been more complex than previously thought.

The stone, which was carried up a cliff and into the cave, was found covering the remains of several people who died between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The picture on the slab is an extremely rare example of a recognizable human figure made by Natufians, the researchers say.

According to scholars, Danny Rosenberg, Györgie Lengyel, and Dani Nadel and researchers, Rivka Chasan, in their recent paper in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, the Natufian culture exists from around 15,000 to about 11,700 years ago and extend from Sinai in south-northern Syria and east into Jordanian desert.

The protracted period of transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer society to Neolithic agriculture that started around 15,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region is dubbed the Natufian period.

Small nomadic groups gave way to complex sedentary or semi-sedentary communities that existed on the threshold of an agricultural society.

At some sites, archaeologists tend to agree that the Natufians actually settled year-round in hamlets. As they settled and began to farm (and had dogs), the Natufians established what may be the earliest distinct cemeteries, where communities buried at least some of their dead.

At least some others who were dearly departed were relegated to beneath the floor of the home or laid to rest nearby.

The incised slab with the humanoid image in Raqefet Cave: front, back and profile

But it seems that when they did bury their dead, Natufian mortuary practices were elaborate.

Their funerals may have featured gathering and feasting, and – going by the newly found crude depiction – dancing.

The figure on the slab could plausibly be a shaman with an exposed penis or be dressed up as an animal, in which case the protuberance could be a tail.

Or maybe it was a lizard. In time, hopefully, more slabs will be found and examination with advanced technology will shed new light on this intriguing phenomenon, the researchers add.

Israeli Archaeologists Solve Mystery of Prehistoric Stone Balls

Israeli Archaeologists Solve Mystery of Prehistoric Stone Balls

For any man-made spherical object of stone petrospheres or spheroids are two archeological terms. Such, mostly prehistoric objects, were found intricately carved and painted, indicating they were deemed important to ancient people as far back as two million years ago.

The balls of stone were discovered in East Africa and throughout Eurasia from the Middle East to China and India, but their purpose had baffled specialists, until now, that is.

Qesem cave ( “magic” cave in Hebrew) is a Lower Paleolithic archaeological site located 12 km (7.46 miles) east of Tel Aviv in Israel that was occupied by early humans between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Burned animal bones from Qesem Cave, Israel.

The evidence of selective game hunting, butchery, and transport of animals has been identified by archeologists back to the cave where meat is cooked and exchanged among the group, but until now a curious collection of petrospheres, which perplexed archaeologists, until now.

In a new study published in PLOS ONE last week, an international team of archeologists led by an archaeologist at the University of Tel Aviv, Ella Assaf, suggesting these enigmatic artifacts were used to break the bones of large animals so that the nutritious marrow could be harvested from within.

This early butchering technique underlines how an “elegant technological solution” allowed hominins to increase their calorific intake over hundreds of thousands of years. This, in turn, helped to develop diverse societies.

According to a report in Haaretz, it wasn’t just the spheres’ “purpose” that remained obscure, but their presence in the cave was considered “anachronistic” (from an alternative time period) because similar spherical artifacts are normally found at much older sites.

The team of researchers analyzed 30 spherical stone artifacts recovered from Qesem Cave in the year 2000. Since then Tel Aviv University archaeologists Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai have uncovered what the new paper describes as “a treasure trove,” including hundreds of thousands of flint tools and animal bones, as well as 13 hominin teeth.

Example of ancient hominin teeth from the Qesem Cave, Israel.

A Magical Cave of Archaeological Mysteries

It is currently unknown who the cave dwellers were, or where they had come from, but these particular distant ancestors of ours were “relatively ahead of their time” going by these stone bone smashing tools.

An archaeologist uses a reproduction of a shaped ball to crack open an animal bone

However, a faction of the world’s archaeologists will be reading this article with more than a modicum of skepticism, for it was this very cave and one of the archaeologists that attracted a lot of negative media attention in December 2010 when reports suggested Israeli and Spanish archaeologists had found “the earliest evidence yet of modern humans.”

However, according to Nature, the whole story received a backlash from the blogosphere that quickly pointed out how the media coverage had inaccurately reflected the details of the scientific report.

Where this “rewriting of the history of human evolution” went wrong was that most of the initial reports were based on a Tel Aviv University press release about a  paper published in  The American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

It was written by Israeli and Spanish scientists and detailed the discovery in Qesem Cave, of eight teeth dating to between 200,000 and 400,000 years ago.

Were these teeth among the oldest “significant early human remains” found anywhere in southwest Asia, the scientists asked. And if they were indeed  Homo sapiens teeth, then modern humans were living in the Levant as early as 400,000 years ago, when most archaeologists maintain we were still hunting in Africa.

Archaeological Controversy at the Magic Cave

The specific wording of the original paper was scientifically safe and the scientists admitted that the teeth “cannot be conclusively identified as belonging to a particular species of human, whether  Homo sapiens –  the first modern humans – Neanderthals, or other humans.”

But the wording of the paper’s press release, and many of the subsequent articles, leaned on the eye-grabbing headline idea that  Homo sapiens might have lived in the Levant almost half a million years ago, challenging mainstream archaeology and anthropology.

Science bloggers  Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek instantly responded to the articles promoting this revolutionary history, which they described as “hype”, and they pointed out to the public all the discrepancies between the original paper and the media coverage, which was a downright horrific show of Fake News.

However, when Nature spoke to archaeologist Avi Gopher from Tel Aviv University, who co-authored the paper, and asked him if the teeth he found in Qesem Cave “really provide evidence that  Homo sapiens did not evolve in Africa;” instead of rejecting the idea, he said “We don’t know. What I can say is that they definitely leave all options open.”

Bronze Canaanite Figurines Unearthed in Israel

Bronze Canaanite Figurines Unearthed in Israel

The Canaanite god of Baal was a 3,300-year-old bronze figurine; a bronze calf statue, two seals, and Canaanite and Philistine pottery have been unearthed by a team led by Gil Davis of Macquarie University and Yossi Garfinkel of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the site of Khirbet el-Rai, which is located in south-central Israel.

Smiting statue: The partially intact figurine wears a tall hat and would have had its right arm raised and its other arm held out in front, possibly holding a weapon such as a spear. Credit: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Israel Antiquities Authority, students of the Ancient Israel program of Macquarie University have excavated 1.7 hectares of premises. The Macquarie archaeology students were delighted when they unearthed the bronze figure of the Canaanite god Baal, poised to smite his enemies, and a small bronze calf, bringing images to mind of the biblical ‘golden calf’.

“We have high hopes and low expectations when we go through the archaeological excavation but of course it’s great when we make exciting discoveries,” says Dr. Gil Davis, Director of the Ancient Israel Program at the University of Macquarie.

“We dream of making discoveries that will change our understanding of a significant part of the ancient past.”

In order to write the history, you need to understand it from your own perspective, actually see it for yourself and experience it yourself.

Dig co-director Professor Yossi Garfinkel, Head of the Institute of Archaeology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the partnership with Macquarie University has enabled them to excavate on a much larger scale than usual.  “Most of the discoveries at this site are thanks to the cooperation of Macquarie University.”

For three weeks from 26 January to 13 February 2020, the team worked in the warm winter sun to dig, sift and discard bucket-loads of soil to unearth these artifacts at two different locations on the site. It follows the team’s groundbreaking claim that this site was once the ancient Philistine city of Ziklag mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Samuel.

Hidden treasures: Macquarie student Hannah Newman discovered the bronze calf figurine during the last week of the excavation.

Lost city found

According to the Bible, the Philistine King Achish of Gath gave Ziklag to David — renowned for slaying the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17) —while he was fleeing King Saul. Later, after Saul’s death, David became king in Hebron and Ziklag remained in the hands of his nascent kingdom of Judah. The city’s true whereabouts have remained unknown for centuries, until now. The team’s excavations have revealed layers from the 12th–10th Centuries BCE, which covers the city’s Canaanite foundation and rule by the Philistines as well as the Israelite Kingdom of Judah. They have also found evidence of a fierce fire, burnt mud bricks, white ash, burnt wood and numerous destroyed ceramic vessels – which coincides with the biblical account of the city being raided by the Amalekites.

Scholars have been divided over the location of Ziklag, with as many as 12 potential sites put forward as contenders. But Garfinkel and co-director Dr Kyle Keimer, Senior Lecturer in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel at Macquarie University, say the assembled evidence gives Khirbet el-Rai a strong claim to be the lost biblical city.

“Our site is chronologically the right time period and as we’ve excavated and discovered how significant this site was from a political and economic and geographical stance, we sought to identify it with a biblical site,” explains Keimer.

“I wholeheartedly think that it’s a very feasible explanation, particularly in comparison to the other sites which have been proposed, all of which have one issue or another with them whether it be chronological, archaeological or geographical.”

The site has yielded a wealth of artifacts including rich finds of Canaanite pottery, vessels used to store oil and wine, a stash of flint ‘blanks’ used for sickle blades, inscriptions, oil lamps, a portable shrine, and even a large bronze spearhead. The team has uncovered a series of superimposed monumental buildings as well as multiple domestic buildings. The earliest of the monumental buildings were destroyed, preserving a room full of burnt bones and cultic objects, some of which find their origins in Cyprus. The architecture and small finds indicate that a sophisticated society with international connections was in existence at that time (the Iron Age I), rather than modest scattered settlements as scholars previously thought.

“We are bringing colour, taste, and smell to the drywalls and rooms we are uncovering here on the site.

The dig is also unique in that the 32 students from Macquarie’s Ancient Israel Program have been given the chance to make their mark on history by gaining hands-on experience in the field. Six were specially selected as mentorees and paired with an Israeli supervisor to learn how to manage and run their own excavation square.

“It’s so exciting and I’ve learnt so many things that I never even thought were part of archaeology,” says mentoree Eva Rummery.

“In order to write the history you need to understand it from your own perspective, actually see it for yourself and experience it yourself, and that means you can not only write it so much more accurately but you can get your own feeling of what’s happening. And it connects you back to the geography of the place, how the environment works, which is so important because that puts you in the life of the people who originally lived here.”

In the field: Archaeology student Eva Rummery says the practical experience has helped her to pursue postgraduate study at Macquarie.

Mentoree Michaela Ryan says the dig creates opportunities for participants to pursue future study.

“I think you need to understand not just the theories and what we learn from a textbook but the actual practical experience behind it – it will help me immensely in going into postgraduate studies in the field,” Michaela said.

The entire experience instills the students with an “invaluable work ethic” going forward, said Davis. “These are bright and engaged students already but the experience of working as a team, having to problem solve, having to deal with difficult conditions, having to relate to different cultures and languages changes them, and after the dig their motivation and their grades are enhanced,” Davis said.

Chemistry lab a field first

Evidence-based findings: Dr. Sophia Aharonovich carries out a soil sample test in the field alongside student Edward Clancy.

In another major innovation, the students have been trained in sampling for residue analysis using an on-site chemistry laboratory overseen by Dr. Sophia Aharonovich. They have been taught how to collect soil samples from different locations and carry out six chemical tests on each one to get immediate preliminary results in the field. These results can show whether there was human activity (such as cooking or sleeping) and organic material (such as remnants of oil and wine) in a certain location, giving a clearer understanding of what each area was used for in ancient times.

“We are bringing colour, taste, and smell to the drywalls and rooms we are uncovering here on the site,” explains Aharonovich. Macquarie University has been excavating at Khirbet el-Rai since 2018, with the dig funded by the Roth Families of Sydney and the on-site chemistry laboratory funded by Isaac Wakil in memory of his late wife Susan.

Israel Archaeologists unearth 1,200-year-old mosque

Israel Archaeologists unearth 1,200-year-old mosque

In an archeological dig in the mainly Bedouin town of Rahat, north of Beersheba remains of a 1200-year-old rural mosque, one of the oldest in the world was discovered.

“The Middle East and the world in general and, above all, in the northern part of Beersheba, where a similar building has not been found so far, it is a rare find since this time,” says Shahar Zur, and Dr. Jon Seligman, the Directors of the dig, on behalf of the Antiquities Authority.

“There have been great well-known mosques in Jerusalem and Mecca since this period, but here is evidence of an ancient house of worship, that seems to have been used by farmers living in the area,” they added.

“We found the ruins of the open-air mosque, a rectangular building with a “Mihrab” (a prayer niche) facing south, to the direction of Mecca.

These features are evidence for the purpose for which this building was used, many hundred years ago.”

Muslims pray at the newly discovered remains

A farm from the end of the Byzantine period (500-600 C.E.) was also uncovered in the excavations, as well as a small settlement from the beginning of the Islamic period (600-700 C.E.) with remains of buildings that were split into living spaces, open courtyards, storage space and places used for food preparation, including “tabbuns” (open-air fireplaces used for baking).

“These sites were part of the agricultural system that existed in the northern Negev in early times,” explained Zur and Seligman.

“The soil was suitable for growing grains and the groundwater in perennial streams attracted settlers here who wanted to cultivate the land.”

“This is one of the earliest mosques known of from the time of the first arrival of Islam in Israel, after the Arab conquest in 636 C.E.,” said Professor Gideon Avni, an expert in the period at the Antiquities Authority.

“The discovery of the mosque next to an agricultural town between Beersheba and Ashkelon indicates the processes of cultural and religious change which the country underwent during the transition from the Byzantine period to the early Islamic period.”

“The uncovering of the town and the mosque next to it, significantly contribute to studies on the history of the land in this stormy period,” he added.

“According to historical Islamic sources, the new Muslim government distributed plots of land to its senior officials, including Omar ibn al-Etz, an Arab military commander who took over the land of Israel and Syria.

The continuation of excavations on the site will perhaps provide answers to the questions regarding the foundation of the settlement and the nearby mosque and its connection to the Arab conquerors of the land of Israel.”

Yaser Alamor of Israel’s Antiquities Authority displays a stone retrieved from the mosque

The dig was headed by the Israel Antiquities Authority alongside Bedouin residents and youth from towns in the area as a new neighborhood was established in the city.

An initiative by the antiquities authority engages organized groups of youth during the summer vacation in archaeological digs, allowing them to earn a fair wage, engage with the past and also collect experiences for their whole lives.

3,000-year-old Canaanite temple discovered in southern Israel

3,000-year-old Canaanite temple discovered in southern Israel

In southern central Israel, Tel Lachish’s new discovery consists of very rare inscriptions showing early precursors of Hebrew alphabet

An aerial view of the newly found temple at Tel Lachish.

In Tel Lachish National Park, the 3,000-year-old temple of Canaanite has unearthed by a team of Israelis and American archeologists.

Under the guidance of Prof. Yosef Garfinkel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Michael Hasel from the University of southern Advent at Tennessee, the team published their findings in the Levant journal last month following years of excavations.

Located in south-central Israel, Tel Lachish is the site of the biblical Lachish, a major Canaanite city during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages that was later conquered by the Israelites. It was one of the only Canaanite cities to survive into the 12th century BCE.

“We excavated a new temple in the northeast corner of the site that [dates] to the 12th century BCE,” Garfinkel told The Media Line. “It was extremely rich with objects and also [had] an inscription, which is very, very rare. The last time a Canaanite inscription was found was about 40 years ago.”

The aforementioned inscription was found on a pottery shard and features the oldest-known example of the letter “samekh.”

An extremely rare find found at Tel Lachish shows a Caananite inscription and the oldest-known example of the letter “samekh” (highlighted). (T. Rogovski)

“Our inscription is Semitic: It’s Canaanite and later the Hebrew script developed from the same type of writing,” Garfinkel explained, adding that the discovery was “of tremendous importance to the history of the [Hebrew alphabet].”

The new temple marks the first time in a long while that a new Canaanite temple has been found; in fact, the majority of such structures were already unearthed in the early 20th century.

In addition, the Lachish temple was built in a symmetrical style which has only been seen in a few other places in Israel, among them Tel Megiddo, Hazor and Nablus.

“This is the first time that we have a symmetrical temple at Lachish,” Garfinkel said. “There are fewer than 10 of these in Israel.”

Itamar Weissbein, the lead co-author of the study and one of the excavators, told The Media Line that this is the third Canaanite temple found at Lachish.

The first two temples were discovered by a British expedition in the 1930s and an Israeli team in the 1970s, respectively.

“In general, temples in the ancient Near East were not like churches or synagogues that you [could] enter,” Weissbein said. “It’s a different type of cultic activity. Only a few elites – priests or maybe kings – entered to do some rituals there because it was a house of gods, not a house of worship in a way.”

Weissbein emphasized that worshippers would likely have been standing outside the temple in the courtyard, an area that has not been well-preserved over the centuries. Researchers were, however, able to glean some ideas about the cultic activities that took place inside the temple based on artifacts that they dug up.

“We found two figurines of male deities,” Weissbein stated. “They probably represent Baal, [who was] one of the main deities of the Canaanites, like a storm god or a fertility god … and another deity called Resheph, [who was] more of a warlike deity.”

Two ancient figurines found at the temple in Tel Lachish likely represent Baal and Resheph, deities worshipped by the Canaanites.

In addition to the ruins, the figurines and the inscription, Garfinkel’s team also found bronze cauldrons, jewelry, daggers, scarabs and a gold-plated bottle bearing an inscription with the name of the powerful Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II.

Iron Age temple discovered at Tel Motza near Jerusalem calls into question the Biblical claim that Solomon’s Temple was the only temple in the ancient Kingdom of Judah

Iron Age Temple Uncovered in Jerusalem Challenges Biblical Claim

Perhaps Solomon’s famous Temple was not the first or only Holy Temple in the world. Dating to around 900 BC, an Iron Age temple located near Jerusalem negates the long-held idea the ancient Kingdom of Judah (southern Israel) only had one temple, the First Temple, better known as Solomon’s Temple, which was operational between 10th century BC until it was destroyed in 586 BC.

The Iron Age site of Tel Motza, about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) outside Jerusalem, has been known since the early 1990s and archaeologists found the remains of a settlement dated to the Neolithic period (about 6000 BC).

In 2012 a settlement from the First Temple period was discovered containing a cultic structure and 36 wheat granaries, indicating that Motza was part of an ancient economic center, and it is the presence of this one ancient religious complex that challenges the history of Judah presented in the Bible.

The Tel Motza Iron Age temple excavation site in Jerusalem.
The Tel Motza Iron Age temple excavation site in Jerusalem.

A new study of the temple by co-researcher Shua Kisilevitz, a doctoral student of archaeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel and an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and review co-author Oded Lipschits, the director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, was published in the January/February issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.

In the article, the researchers say the temple had been built about 900 BC and that they think it operated until the early 6th century BC.

And where this discovery is controversial is that the existence of this temple means that people living close to Jerusalem had their own place of worship, a cultic temple, which in itself suggests the rule of the Jerusalem high priests was “not so strong”, and that the kingdom was “not so well established” as the Bible leads us to believe, Kisilevitz and Lipschits, told Live Science.

A report in the Daily Mail detailing the study says the ancient temple could have held about 150 congregants who worshiped the god Yahweh, but they also used idols to communicate with the divine in the same period as the First Temple.

This contradicts the Jewish Bible that details the religious reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah, who consolidated worship at Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and allegedly stopped ‘all’ cultic practices out of its walls.

Kisilevitz told Live Science that the temple was a rectangular building with an open courtyard at the front that would have been a focal point for cultic worship, and inside they found a stone-built a sacrificial altar near pits for dead animal bodies.

Two human-like and two horse-like clay figurines were discovered smashed and buried in the courtyard, which was thought to have been associated with rainfall, fertility and harvest ritual of some kind. The researchers added that the horse-like figurines may be the “oldest known depictions of horses from the Iron Age of Judah.”

Figurine of a horse found in Tel Motza Iron Age temple in the excavation site.

The teams of archaeologists at Tel Motza unearthed dozens of grain storage silos (granaries) and associated administrative and religious buildings. This informs us that Tel Motza sold grain to the nearby Jerusalem.

Over time, the settlement is believed to have become an agricultural and economic “powerhouse,” the researchers wrote in the magazine piece. They also speculate that perhaps the temple was permitted to exist by the high priests at Solomon’s Temple because it was part of the granary and didn’t threaten centralized control of the kingdom.

During the time this temple was functional, new political groups and alliances emerged in the Levant, and it is believed that in the face of these changes people maintained traditional religious practices.

The researchers said this was evident in the temple’s artifacts and architecture, which they say are reminiscent of religious traditions from the ancient Near East that had been practiced since the third millennium BC.

Figurine of a ram found in Tel Motza Iron Age temple excavation site.

The discovery and analysis of this ancient Iron Age temple not only enlightens historians on the state formation of Judah during this period. It also determines that the state was nowhere near as centralized as it would later become and that in its formative days it depended not solely on the administrative elite at Solomon’s Temple, but on trading relationships with nearby settlements like Tel Motza, and maybe others yet to be discovered.

How archaeologists were stunned by ‘oldest biblical text ever’ discovery near the Dead Sea

How archaeologists were stunned by ‘oldest biblical text ever’ discovery near the Dead Sea

We witnessed some biblical discoveries this year which proved true in many histories such as the watchtower of the 8th century, the church of the 5th century, a settlement connected to the crucifixion of Jesus among others.

Nevertheless, the scholars were surprised when archeologists had uncovered an almost similar text to the Dead Sea Scroll.

Jesus was born in 4 AD and crucified, it is said, by crucifixion somewhere between 30AD and 33AD and by resurrection three days later. through the resurrection, he came back. But a discovery in the 21st century shook off that belief.

The Dead Sea Scrolls date back more than 2,000 years

A team of archaeologists discovered Gabriel stone, which was a tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew text from the Dead Sea that also includes some controversial prophecies.

The biblical investigator Simcha Jacobovici recently explained these texts which date back to the 1st century BC.

The experts stated that “Perea is located on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, it is here that the most famous writings ever were unearthed. Discovered in 1948, the more than 2,000-year-old documents are the oldest biblical texts ever found.”

It should be noted that after the discovery of the Gabriel Inscriptions, archaeologists were stunned and when scholars deciphered it, they were startled by the fact that they were looking at the Dead Sea Scroll on a stone, said Jacobovici.


Recently during Amazon Prime’s “Decoding the Ancients” series, Jacobovici mentioned that the similarities between the Gabriel inscriptions and the scrolls are impressive as both are written in ink, both the texts are written in two columns and have the Hebrew letters suspended from the upper guidelines.

Jacobovici said that this suggests that the stone, like the scrolls, originates from the shores of the Dead Sea.

“So in search of a Gabriel-like stone in the area of Perea, Simcha travels here to meet with archaeologist Konstantinos Politis, who’s been digging in this area for 20 years.

Among the artifacts unearthed by Politis, Simcha is struck by the ancient Jewish and Christian gravestones reminiscent of the Gabriel Inscription. And Politis has a lot more artifacts like this,” said the expert.

The discovery of Gabriel’s inscription has caused controversy due to its context. An expert in Talmudic and biblical language at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Israel Knohl, translated line 80 from the inscription which says, “in three days, live, I Gabriel command you”.

As per his interpretation, it was a command from the angel Gabriel who asked (someone) to rise from dead after three days. But he also understood that the recipient of this command was Simon of Peraea, a Jewish rebel who was killed by the Romans in 4the century BC.

Later, a biblical expert Ada Yardeni agreed to Knohl’s interpretation while other scholars have rejected Knohl’s reading.

However, later in 2011, Knohl accepted that “sign” is more relevant than “live” but the latter is a possible reading. No wonder, the year 2019 has witnessed some Biblical findings resurface to make these them relevant and controversial yet again.

Extinct date palms grown from 2000-year-old seeds found near Jerusalem

Extinct date palms grown from 2000-year-old seeds found near Jerusalem

Seven date palm trees have been grown from 2000-year-old seeds that were found in the Judean desert near Jerusalem. The seeds – the oldest ever germinated – were among hundreds discovered in caves and in an ancient palace built by King Herod the Great in the 1st century BC.

The find reveals how ancient farmers were selectively breeding dates from around the region, and it could give clues to how dates can survive for millennia.

Robin Allaby, a genetics expert at Warwick University who was not part of the research team said: “This is an extraordinary finding.“It shines a light on the fact that we don’t understand long-term seed viability.”

Sarah Sallon, an ethnobotanist at the Hadassah Medical Center, and colleagues have collected hundreds of seeds for growing the date plants.

Some were excavated from Masada, Israel—a mountaintop fortress on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea that was partly built by the biblical King Herod; others came from caves around the Dead Sea used for storage and living quarters.

Extinct date palms grown from 2000-year-old seeds found near Jerusalem
Palm trees in the ruins of Babylon. Two of the seeds found are like modern Iraqi varieties of date, which may be linked to the return of Jews from exile in the sixth century BC.

The researchers soaked 34 of the most promising specimens in warm water and liquid fertilizer and then planted them in sterile potting soil.

Six seeds germinated and sprouted into seedlings that would eventually become date palms. The successful seeds were all several centimeters long, 30% larger than modern date seeds, suggesting dates that were significantly larger than modern varieties.

To verify that the seeds were ancient—and not more recent specimens deposited amid archaeological artifacts by burrowing animals, for example—the team carbon-dated seed shell fragments clinging to the roots after the seeds had successfully sprouted. The seeds were between 2200 and 1800 years old, the team reports today in Science Advances.

Initial genetic analysis of the plants grown from the ancient seeds suggests farmers in the region were growing dates that mixed traits from around the ancient world.

The result, according to classical writers like Galen, Strabo, and Herodotus, was a large, sweet, shelf-stable fruit that was a prized treat throughout the Roman world. After the collapse of the Roman empire and the Arab conquest of the region, Judean date farming declined. By the time of the Crusades, around 1000 C.E., the area’s date plantations were no more.

The new plants could be the beginning of a revival—if not of the ancient dates then at least of their best features. Study co-author Frédérique Aberlenc, a biologist at the French National Institute for Sustainable Development, says the group plans to pollinate the female plants in the near future, hopefully allowing them to bear fruit.

The idea is to produce fruit with traits that could be used to improve modern varieties, increasing their sweetness and size and resistance to modern pests, for example. The plants could also provide a window into how date plants manage to protect and preserve their DNA over the course of many centuries.

Although an older grass seed was successfully germinated after millennia frozen in Siberian permafrost, these dates are some of the oldest plants ever successfully germinated. That’s because DNA and RNA usually fragment over time into tiny pieces.

That may be enough for ancient DNA analysis, but not to grow a living date palm plant. “For these seeds to germinate, the DNA had to be intact, which goes against a lot of what we know about DNA preservation,” says University of York archaeogeneticist Nathan Wales, who was not involved with the study. “It’s not out of the question that there is some really cool biological system at work that preserves DNA [in dates].”

Sallon says the unusual conditions around the Dead Sea probably helped. “Low altitude, heat, dry conditions—all of those could affect the longevity of the embryo,” she says.

The seeds’ unusual size could have played a role, too. The more genetic material there is, the more is likely to remain whole, Allaby says. “But it’s still extraordinary. … It beggars belief that you would have entire chromosomes intact.”