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The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 25.000 fragments with ancient manuscripts in which we find the most ancient copies of the Bible . In fact, the dating places the most about the year 250. C. , although there are some hovering around the 66 d. C. The first seven manuscripts were discovered accidentally by bedouin herders at the end of 1946, in a cave near the ruins of Qumran (in the region of the west bank), but were later found new pieces that have complicated the reconstruction of their global history, especially because it is not known their order. Now, researchers from the Tel Aviv University (Israel) and the Uppsala University (Sweden) have used a hint to help in this effort: the “ fingerprints ” the DNA of the animal skins where they were written.

“The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the archaeological discoveries most important ever made,” says Oded Rechavim one of the authors of the conclusions of the study that was just published in “Cell”. However, according to the researcher, raises two challenges : “The first, most of them were not found intact , but are disintegrated into thousands of fragments which later had to be classified and rebuild, without prior knowledge of how many pieces were lost for ever; and, in the case of the compositions is not biblical, do not know how should read the original text . Depending on the classification of each fragment, the interpretation of any message that could change dramatically.”

The second point is that most of the scrolls are not arrived at by the researchers directly from the caves, but through dealers of antiques . As a result, it is not clear where they come from many of the fragments, which causes it to be much more difficult to bring them together and in their historical context right.

Blending ancient DNA and language

Since its discovery, scholars have treated it as a puzzle: based mainly in the visible properties of the fragments in order to know its relationship with other fragments. In this new study, Rechavi and his colleagues, including Noam Mizrahi (University of Tel Aviv) and Mattias Jakobsson (University of Uppsala), decided to search for evidence more profound. Of each piece, removed the ancient DNA of animals that is used to make the parchments. Then, using forensic analysis, they worked to establish the relationship between the pieces, mixing the genetic analysis with the clues offered by the language in which were written the texts.

The first of the surprises revealed by the DNA: belonged mainly sheep . The team considered that the pieces written on the skin of this animal would be related, even more so if the sheep were related in some way -whether they were of the same species are more likely to write the same person if I changed my family’s sheep-. However, it was not all so easy.

Sheep and cows

The researchers ran into an interesting case in which two pieces that were believed to be related were in fact written on two scrolls from different animals, in particular sheep and cows . In particular, the most notable example came from scrolls that comprise different copies of the book of the bible and prophetic of Jeremiah , some of the scrolls oldest known.

“The analysis of the text found in these parts of Jeremiah suggests that not only belong to different scrolls , but they also represent different versions of the prophetic book. The fact that the rolls are made of a animal species different , in addition to a language different than, is indicative of its origin is not the same,” says Mizrahi.

most likely, the researcher explains, is that the fragments of a cow would write in another place , because it was not possible to raise cows in the desert of Judea . The discovery also has implications larger: the researchers write that the fact that different versions of the book circulated in parallel suggests that “the sanctity of the biblical book did not extend to his writing, precisely,” that Is to say, that the religions of judaism and christianity adopted some messages that, in reality, were not written that way . But this may be more of an opportunity than a problem: “it teaches Us about the way in which he read this prophetic text in that time and it also has clues about the evolution process of the message,” says Rechavi.

Cave of Qumran – Shai HaleviOtras surprises

Another of the discoveries was the relationship between the different copies of a work, liturgical-not biblical-known as ” Songs of the Sacrifice of Sabbath “, found both at Qumran and in Masada. The analysis shows that the different copies found in different caves of Qumran are closely related genetically, but the copy of Masada is different .

The tests also confirm that some other fragments of uncertain origin probably from other places and not from the caves of Qumran, as is the case of a piece of a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah, one of the most popular books in the old Judea . The researchers point out that probably this parchment came from another site , which suggests the existence of a new reservoir or cave that has not yet been discovered by the archaeology community.

even Though the DNA evidence adds to the understanding, can only “ reveal part of the image and not to solve all the mysteries ” says Rechavi. The researchers had to extract DNA from small amounts of material, what they refer to as “dust” of parchment in certain cases, in addition to that have not been analyzed in all the samples existing, in some cases by lack of resources and in others because directly is impossible because may deteriorate.

Still, the researchers expect to analyze more samples and to be added to the database in order to work towards a “genome” most complete of the Dead Sea Scrolls . In addition, you could use this approach to study any ancient material that contains intact DNA.