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Seed from Masada is the oldest to germinate

The World

June 13, 2008|Wendy Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Scientists using radiocarbon dating have confirmed that an ancient Judean date palm seed among those found in the ruins of Masada in present-day Israel and planted three years ago is 2,000 years old -- the oldest seed ever to germinate.

The seed has grown into a healthy, 4-foot-tall seedling, surpassing the previous record for oldest germinated seed -- a 1,300-year-old Chinese lotus, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science.

The tree has been named Methuselah after the oldest person in the Bible. It is the only living Judean date palm, the last link to the vast date palm forests that once shaded and nourished the region.

Sarah Sallon, who directs the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, became interested in the ancient date palm as a possible source of medicines. She enlisted Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura to coax the seeds out of dormancy.

One sprouted. Scientists estimated that it was about 2,000 years old based on carbon dating of other seeds found at the site, but they had no way of directly testing the planted seed without risking its chance of germinating.

After the Methuselah seed germinated, Solowey found fragments of the seed shell clinging to the roots -- enough for dating.

The shell fragments initially dated to AD 295, give or take 50 years, but a small percentage of "modern" carbon incorporated as the seed germinated made it appear 250 to 300 years younger. Correcting for this factor, the researchers reported that the seed dates from 60 BC to AD 95, similar to the other seeds from the site.

That placed the seed at Masada a few years after the Roman siege there in 73, when, according to the ancient historian Josephus, nearly 1,000 Jewish Zealots in the Masada fortress committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to the Romans. They burned most of their food stores, leaving a single cache to show that they did not starve to death.

"These people were eating these dates up on the mountain and looking down at the Roman camp, knowing that they were going to die soon, and spitting out the pits," Sallon said. "Maybe here is one of those pits."

Archaeologists excavating the ancient fortress of Masada unearthed the seeds in 1965, and they sat in storage for four decades before being planted.

The seeds probably survived for so long because of the extremely arid conditions of the Masada mesa, said Cary Fowler, seed preservation expert and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

Preliminary comparison of Methuselah's DNA with modern date palms shows a 20% to 50% difference from current varieties, differences which may include lost traits for resistance to pests and diseases.

Sallon and her colleagues hope to cultivate more ancient date seeds and eventually reintroduce the Judean date palm to the area. "It should be there because that's where it belongs," she said.

They also plan to test the tree for the medicinal properties hinted at in historical writings.

"Is it really the tree of life?" Sallon asked.

That question won't be answered until around 2010, when Methuselah -- if female -- may bear fruit.

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wendy.hansen@latimes.com

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