Six Ancient Plants From 2,000-Year-Old Seeds Have Been Grown by Scientists

Researchers have grown six Judean date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) from ancient seeds dated to around 2,000 years ago, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

The date palm is one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world and is highly symbolic in parts of the Middle East, as well as the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Studies indicate that the plant was first cultivated in Mesopotamia and the Upper Arabian Gulf from around 7,000 years ago. The Kingdom of Judah—an ancient geopolitical region that emerged in the 11th century B.C. in the southern portion of the historic Land of Israel—was particularly renowned for the quality and quantity of its dates, according to the authors.

In fact, several notable classical writers—including Herodotus and Pliny the Elder—talked about how "Judean date" fruits were widely recognized for their size, sweet taste, long storage life and purported medicinal properties.

"I'm a medical doctor and in the last 20 years I've been doing research particularly into medicinal plants in this region," Sarah Sallon, lead author of the study from the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center, Israel, told Newsweek. "We saw from our research that lots of the plants have become very rare or endangered. So I was becoming more and more interested in what used to grow here in Israel."

"Some of the things that used to grow here, like the famous date plants of antiquity, there's no trace of them left at all," she said. "The dates themselves are very medicinal in antiquity and even today."

When the region fell under the rule of the Romans, Judean dates became highly prized throughout the empire, and the fruits were exported widely.

While the cultivation of date palms in this region continued through the periods of Byzantine and Arab rule (4th to 11th centuries A.D.,) by the 19th century, there were almost no traces left of the historic plantations left—due in part to a mixture of climate change and the destruction of infrastructure by waves of conquest.

Nevertheless, in 2005, a team led by Sallon managed to germinate a 1,900-year-old Judean date palm seed that had been found at a historical site near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Judean date palms
Germinated ancient date seedlings. Guy Eisner/Science Advances

Following up on this achievement, Sallon and colleagues have now germinated six 2,000-year-old date seeds that had previously been uncovered from archaeological sites in the Judean desert and the Dead Sea between the years 1963 and 1991, according to the latest Science Advances paper

The scientists planted the well-preserved seeds in a research site in southern Israel, and they have now grown into plants measuring several feet high in some cases. These results—which confirm the longevity of Judean date palm seeds—could several implications, according to the researchers.

"This study provides a unique opportunity to rediscover the origins of a historic date palm population that existed in Judea 2,000 years ago," the authors wrote in the study. "The characteristics of the Judean date palm may shed light on aspects of ancient cultivation that contributed to the quality of its fruit and is thus of potential relevance to the agronomic improvement of modern dates."