Piecing together ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of Dead Sea Scroll fragments with the help of DNA sequencing

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Ever since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, scholars have tried to piece together the fragments as though they were jigsaw puzzle pieces. This approach, however, failed to clarify many fragment relationships. Consequently, in a recent study, scientists decided to follow a paleogenomic approach. That is, they used DNA sequencing to establish the genetic signatures for the scroll materials made of animal skins.

In this study, scientists representing Tel Aviv University, Uppsala University, Weill Cornell Medicine, and other institutions extracted the DNA left by the animals that were used to make the parchments. Then, using a forensic-like analysis, the scientists worked to establish the relationship between the pieces based on that DNA evidence and on scrutiny of the language within the texts under investigation.

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The evidence also confirmed that some other fragments of uncertain origin likely came from other places and not the Qumran caves. In one case, the DNA evidence suggests a fragment from a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah—one of the most popular books in ancient Judea—likely came from another site, which suggests to the researchers the potential existence of an additional place of discovery that still awaits identification.

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