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Ancient date palms from the time of Christ revived by science and yielding fruit


RACOBOVT | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 10/07/21

In just a few short decades the flavors of the past will be shared around the world as "The Dates that Jesus Ate."

A 15-year effort to germinate 2,000-year-old seeds from an ancient date palm is finally bearing fruit. The Judean dates from the time of Christ had long been considered extinct. Now the flavors of the past are poised to return thanks to a partnership between two scientists who dared to turn fantasy into reality. 

Ancient seeds

The ancient seeds were discovered in the 1960s, during an archaeological dig at the ancient fortress of Masada. Soon after, another cache of seeds was discovered in Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were located. The seeds were stored for more than 40 years, until Dr. Sarah Sallon took an interest.

Sallon was determined to germinate the date palm seeds, a feat that is not altogether unheard of. Experts, however, did not think the germination of the ancient plants would be successful. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Dr. Sarah Sallon was called “mad” when she requested a small sample for the attempted revival. After “a lot of hassling,” as she described it, Sallon was eventually granted the sample, in 2004.

With the seeds secured, Sallon reached out to Elaine Solowey, a specialist in renewable agriculture from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Kibbutz Ketura. The two partnered for the project and have been working together ever since. 

In the video above, in which the fully-grown date palm dubbed “Hanna” may be seen, Solowey recalls the conversation that launched the project: 

“Sarah sent me these seeds and then she said, ‘They’re from Masada.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And then she said ‘Try to sprout them.’ So I said “What?! How old are they?” She said ‘2,000 years old.’ So I said, ‘I can’t sprout these!’ She just said ‘Try.’”


Try Solowey did, after spending several weeks figuring out the best approach. With a small sample of only five seeds and only one chance to grow each, Solowey had to make sure there were no mistakes. The New York Times reports Solowey achieved the desired results through “horticultural tricks” such as warming, careful hydration, and treatments with plant hormones and enzymatic fertilizers.

It only took a few weeks for the sprout to appear, to Solowey’s astonishment. The Masada seeds grew into a plant which Sallon named “Methuselah,” for the biblical man who was known for his great age. Unfortunately the plant was a male, but Sallon and Salowey had proved that they could revive millennia-old seeds and that gave them the clout they needed to get more samples. 

The pair sought and were provided with an additional 30 seeds, this time from the Qumran batch. Of this sample, another six seeds sprouted and three of these were female. The Qumran plants are still just fledglings, but Hanna has now yielded two successful harvests. Last year’s harvest produced about 100 dates, but this year there were more than 800. 

Return of the Judean date

The dates, The New York Times explains, were briefly tasted by the team. They are described as having a nutty flavor, with a honey-like sweetness. After harvesting, about 100 samples were sent to the Ministry of Agriculture’s research site. The remainder will be measured, studied, and perhaps even used to create new plants. 

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Advances, where Sallon and Salowey wrote: 

“This study, which confirms the long-term survival of date palm seeds, provides a unique opportunity to rediscover the origins of a historic date palm population that existed in Judea 2,000 years ago. 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.”

Reports note that it is the goal of the project to create thousands of these date palm trees to mass-produce the ancient dates. They are considering marketing the fruit as “The Dates that Jesus Ate,” which will raise money for future research projects. 

The mass production of ancient dates, however, is still years away due to the time it will take to grow the date palms to maturity. 

Visit the New York Times for a full account of the revival of the ancient date palm.

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