DNA testing the Dead Sea Scrolls

National Geographic gets physical clues about the parchment the Dead Sea Scrolls were written on – by DNA testing the fragmentary animal skins that these scriptures were written on:

Researchers have spent decades trying to laboriously piece together the 2,000-year-old fragments, most of which were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s in 11 caves near a site called Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea.

Now a team of Israeli, Swedish, and American researchers has applied advanced genetic testing to the material, a parchment made from animal skins. Their findings, published Tuesday in the journal Cell, show that at least some of the material likely originated from other parts of the region rather than at Qumran.

They also hint that Judeans of the period were less concerned with the precise wording of ancient religious texts than later Jews and Christians.

But what excites scholars the most is the prospect of using ancient DNA to match the bewildering bits and pieces, some of which contain only a few letters.

“There are many scrolls fragments that we don’t know how to connect, and if we connect wrong pieces together it can change dramatically the interpretation of any scroll,” said geneticist Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University, who led the effort.