Israeli Researchers Mate 2,000-year-old Date Seeds, Hope for Fruit

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The date tree named 'Hannah' by researchers.
The date tree named 'Hannah' by researchers.Credit: Alex Levac
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Researchers have germinated six 2,000-year-old date seeds, thereby creating, for the first time, a chance that two of the resultant trees will produce fruit.

The results of the research were published Wednesday in the journal “Science Advances.”

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In the article, the researchers also speculated that Israel was the place where the two species of dates known today – the Middle East (eastern) and North African (western) – first interbred.

This isn’t the first time researchers have managed to germinate an ancient date seed. The first such tree, nicknamed Methuselah, was germinated from a seed discovered at Masada in 2005 by Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies.

The tree researchers named 'Methuselah.'Credit: Alex Levac

Today, Methuselah is an adult tree. But because it is male, it will never bear fruit.

Consequently, Solowey and Dr. Sara Sallon of Hadassah Medical Organization decided to try to germinate additional seeds to give Methuselah a mate. The seeds they used were discovered in the 1960s during Yigal Yadin’s digs at Masada and the archaeological excavations at Qumran on the northern Dead Sea.

Solowey chose 32 whole seeds that seemed relatively healthy. She warmed them and gradually added moisture, so as not to make them rot. When six of them showed signs of life, she began giving them fertilizer and hormones.

Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies with the tree named 'Judith.'Credit: Alex Levac

“I was afraid, because you only get one chance with each seed,” she said. “I used a device for warming baby bottles.”

All six were carefully watched and given names – Uriel, Boaz, Hannah, Adam, Judith and Jonah. Three of them – Adam, Jonah and Hannah – were removed from their pots and planted in the ground at the Arava Institute this year.

'Judith,' 'Boaz,' and 'Uriel.'Credit: Alex Levac

Solowey said the dates owe their survival to the special conditions around the Dead Sea. The fact that they were found at sites 300 meters below sea level may have protected them from radiation.

After the seeds germinated, fragments of the seed shells were sent to Switzerland to be dated. The tests showed that they date to somewhere between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. This overlaps with the peak period of human activity at Masada and Qumran, which was between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.

The seedlings’ genetic composition indicates that they are a hybrid of the two species of dates known today – the eastern one, whose habitat stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India, and the western one, which was found in North Africa. The researchers speculated that these two species first interbred in the Land of Israel.

But they noted that the older seeds have more eastern DNA. Thus they concluded that the eastern strain was the native species, but that farmers in the Judean Desert may have interbred the two species 2,000 years ago to produce better dates.