2,000-year-old dates: Yummy!

A “lucky guess” combined with dogged persistent science, including warming, careful hydration and enzymatic fertilizer to recreate an ancient fruit.

Dr. Eileen Solowey and Dr. Sarah Sollan, with Methuselah dates dating from between the first and fourth centuries BCE. (photo credit: MARCOS SCHONHOLZ)
Dr. Eileen Solowey and Dr. Sarah Sollan, with Methuselah dates dating from between the first and fourth centuries BCE.
(photo credit: MARCOS SCHONHOLZ)
From time to time, I clean out our fridge and discard week-old or two-week-old food – often with a coating of fuzzy green mold that is a close cousin of penicillin. That is why I was astounded to read about people recently eating dates from date palms grown from 2,000-year-old seeds. And the dates were yummy!
And herein lies a story.
It begins in 1963-65 with an archaeological dig led by Prof. Yigael Yadin at Masada, the fortress above the Dead Sea built by Herod. In 73-74 CE, Roman soldiers laid siege to 960 Jewish rebels who had taken refuge at Masada and who subsequently committed suicide rather than fall captive. After Yadin’s death in 1984, the botanical remains discovered at Masada were transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the custodianship of Prof. Ehud Netzer, best known for finding the tomb of Herod at Herodian. The large numbers of seeds discovered at Masada included those of dates found at the entrance to the Northern Palace.
Enter two scientists: Dr. Elaine Solowey, a horticulturalist and member of Kibbutz Ketura, and Dr. Sarah Sallon, originally a Hadassah Medical Organization pediatrician and later founder of the Natural Medicine Research Center.
Solowey made aliyah from California in 1971. She grew up in a farm family that had fruit orchards. In the Arava, the arid area that stretches from the Gulf of Eilat to the Dead Sea, she headed Ketura’s date palm orchards.
Sallon who trained as a physician in the UK made aliyah from England many years ago. She recently told New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner: “In these troubled times of climate change, pollution and species dying out at alarming rates, to bring something back to life from dormancy is so symbolic. To pollinate and produce these incredible dates is like a beam of light in a dark time.” Judean date palms are praised in the Bible. They became symbols of “beauty, precious shade and succulent plenty,” Kershner wrote. In daily prayers, we note how the righteous (tzadik) will grow like date palms. But by the Middle Ages, the Judean date palm plantations had died out.
Never underestimate determined women. Sallon originally obtained a few of the Masada date seeds in 2005 with the idea of trying to regenerate ancient varieties of plants that had become extinct.
She turned to Solowey, who planted the seeds in 2005 in quarantined pots. Out of three seeds originally planted, one sprouted. Nicknamed by Sallon “Methuselah,” after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible, it was also the oldest seed ever germinated.
Following this success, published in the journal Science in 2008, Sallon managed to acquire from Hebrew University archaeologist Prof. Joseph Patrick 32 more date seeds discovered in excavations at Qumran, Wadi Makukh, and Wadi Kelt.
Solowey did a few tricks, including using a plant growth hormone. Of the 32 later seeds acquired, six more germinated and were named Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith and Hannah.
“It was a true surprise that the seeds sprouted. Waking up old seeds was just a lucky guess,” Solowey told Jerusalem Post reporter Shmuel Wilber.
That “lucky guess” was combined with dogged persistent science, including warming, careful hydration and enzymatic fertilizer.
Here, we need to explain the data palm boy-girl thing. Date palms are either male or female. Male date palm trees don’t bear fruits, but female trees do. It takes about five to eight years for female seedlings to bear fruits, which is when they become distinguishable from male trees. That is why a few name changes were necessary later: “Judith” was originally ”Judah,” “Adam” was first called “Eve” and Hannah was Jeremiah (as he/she came up before Tisha Be’av).
Hannah, meet Methuselah!
Sallon and Solowey arranged a shidduch – a marriage. Hannah sprouted from a seed found at Wadi Makkukh, near Jericho. Solowey carefully gathered pollen from Methuselah and brushed it onto Hannah’s flowers to fertilize her.
Fast forward. In early September, juicy golden dates were ready to pick. Hannah had borne fruit!
Hannah came from a seed dated between the first and 4th centuries BCE, found in a cave which at one time had been used as an ancient burial site. The seed germinated in 2010; Hannah was impossibly old to become a mom! And Methuselah too is an impossibly old dad, from the same time frame. Nonetheless, Hannah produced about a hundred golden juicy dates!
Sallon, Solowey and friends gathered to celebrate the event and to taste the dates on September 4. On a hot desert day, the dates were picked and taken to a shady spot. Solowey’s husband Michael said the traditional blessing over fruit, “Borey pri ha-etz” (Blessed is the fruit of the tree), along with the blessing of “Shehecheyanu,” the blessing that praises God for enabling us to endure and to prevail.
But there was a problem. Halacha (Jewish law) requires the practice of ma’aser (tithing) and t’rumah – picking first fruits for the Cohen and Levi. So a traditional religious ceremony was later carried out by Sallon in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem where she lives, overlooking the Old City.
And if ever that blessing was appropriate, it was for those amazing dates. Then, participants filled out questionnaires about how the dates tasted. I interviewed Dr. Sallon by email.
There must have been many naysayers, doubters, when you first suggested germinating 2,000 year old seeds – (even now there are those who doubt the carbon dating). Are we really sure the seeds were 2,000 years old? How did you overcome the doubters?
“The seeds were dated in three ways: 1. The provenance of the seed and other archaeological remains derived from the excavations of Yigael Yadin and Prof. Joseph Patrich, whose botanical archaeological collections are based at the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University. 2. Based on radiocarbon dating of control seeds derived from the same sites but unplanted. 3. Based on seed shell fragments of planted seeds found clinging to the rootlets of the germinated seeds during their transfer to larger pots. These findings were submitted to the journals Science and Science Advances and can be found in detail in the supplementary materials attached to the article and were found to be satisfactory to the reviewers.” Your research was published in Science Advances, with you as lead author. The co-authors are from many countries. How did you coordinate the research of such a diverse, geographically-scattered team? And how did you integrate medical doctors, botanists, carbon-dating experts, etc “Coordinating our findings required frequent updates and communications between me and all the researchers involved in this study including those working in Israel, France (Dr Frederique Aberlenc`s team ) Switzerland (Dr. Marcus Egli) and Dr Muriel Gross Balthazard in Abu Dhabi. (The latter, from the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution of Montpellier University, France, was on sabbatical at the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, a part of New York University in Abu Dhabi).
“Based on all these data, which included radiocarbon findings, genetics and seed morphology, I needed to integrate these findings with the historical, archaeological and religious narratives of the date palm in ancient Judea to produce a coherent explanation for our findings.” Can you describe the recent actual scene, or ceremony, when the first dates were harvested – and tasted? What were your feelings? And who gave the little tree the name Methuselah?
“Obviously excited and thrilled after all these years of efforts to finally taste something that was famous 2,000 years ago but has not been experienced for probably at least a thousand years.
“The tree Methuselah which is male and was the first germinated date seed in 2005 is now a very large tree well over 4 meters (over 12 feet) in height. Its pollen was used to fertilize Hannah, the female date tree, germinated ten years ago and planted out about one year ago. However when we discovered by genetic testing that “he” was in fact a “she” – I named her after my mum.” I THINK we human beings can learn a lot from the 2,000-year-old date palms. Exchanges of genetic material occurred between the Middle East and North Africa (Western) date palm gene pools. The results, perhaps exploited by ancient Judean date farmers, produced a valuable, much sought-after date which was famous in antiquity for its flavor, sweetness and medicinal properties.
Date palms give lovingly of their fruit, sustain us even in hot deserts, bend in strong winds and hence rarely break, and create the honey noted in the Bible’s “land of milk and honey” – honey known and loved in Israel as silan, made by mashing and boiling dates. Date palms peacefully mingled their genes and their gifts for centuries for the benefit of Mideast peoples, who at times, in contrast, engaged in destructive wars.
Are date palms a lot smarter than human beings?