This story first arose several years ago, in 2005, with the sprouting of a 2,000-year-old date seed recovered archaeologically from Masada, the ancient fortress site near the Dead Sea. The little date palm was dubbed “Methuselah”, for obvious reasons. When it reached maturity, the tree was found to be a male specimen and, according to the biology of that species, incapable of producing fruit (or more date palms). All this was widely reported on at the time, some of which can be accessed via my previous post (2012, updated 2013).
Well, the saga continues to unfold. Now comes the report that a few years ago other ancient date seeds, which had been recovered from Qumran (where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), were likewise planted: Six of them sprouted into healthy plants, two of these have now proved to be female, and one or both may well flower later this year, experts say. When (and if) one of them does, it will be fertilized with pollen from “Methuselah”, likely resulting in edible fruit, a new batch of viable seeds — and, conceivably, the widespread restoration of this long-extinct, ancient variety of date.
“It was just amazing. It was so incredible,” she says. “And then I got very interested. There’s nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something.”
When she moved back home to Israel, to her job at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, she went looking for medicinal plants there. And she found lots of them. But she also heard about ancient medicinal plants that had disappeared.
“They’re just historical ghosts,” she says. “Like the famous date plantations along the Dead Sea, 2,000 years ago — described by Pliny; described by Josephus, the first-century historian. They’re not there anymore. They just vanished!”
Sallon realized, though, that seeds from those trees still existed. They’d been recovered from archaeological sites. So she went to the archaeologists and proposed planting some of those seeds, to see if they’d grow again. It didn’t go well at first. “They thought I was mad!” she says. “They didn’t think that this was even conceivable.”
But she kept pushing, and eventually persuaded a few of them to provide some seeds to try this with. More than a decade ago, she and Elaine Solowey, a researcher at the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, planted some of these ancient palm seeds. “Six weeks later, little green shoots appeared!” she says.
One tree grew. They named it Methuselah. But Methuselah had a problem.
Date trees are a little unusual. They’re either male or female; each tree makes either pollen or fertile flowers. But it takes both to produce fruit. So Methuselah by himself couldn’t re-create those ancient dates.
But then Sallon found another archaeologist who had recovered a whole trove of date seeds from Qumran, where the ancient texts known as the Dead Sea scrolls had been discovered.
This week, in the journal Science Advances, Sallon and her colleagues announced that they’d grown another six trees from some of these ancient seeds. Two of them are female. “You could say that we found Methuselah a wife,” she says, laughing.
The female trees haven’t flowered yet, but Sallon is hoping that it might happen this year. If one of them does, researchers will take pollen from Methuselah, fertilize those flowers, and wait for fruit to form: dates just like the ones that people in the Bible ate.
When Sallon talks about this possibility, her voice fills with wonder and expectation. According to ancient writers, she says, these dates “were known for their wonderful sweetness, their very large size, and their ability to be stored for a long time, so they actually were exported around the Roman empire.”
Now they may live again, which Sallon takes as a sign of hope for the world. She’s written a children’s book about this, telling the story from the date’s point of view, and hopes to get it published soon.
A few months later, the result is now the first crop of dates produced by this unusual project. The latest chapter of the story — including the results of expert taste-tests! — is told and lavishly illustrated in a New York Times story.