Scientists using radiocarbon dating have confirmed that a Judean date palm seed found in the ruins of Masada and planted three years ago is 2,000 years old — the oldest seed ever to germinate.
The seed has grown into a healthy, 4-foot-tall seedling, surpassing the previous record for oldest germinated seed — a 1,300-year-old Chinese lotus, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science.
The little tree has been named Methuselah after the oldest person in the Hebrew Bible. It is now the only living Judean date palm and the last link to the date palm forests that once shaded and nourished the Middle Eastern region.
Dr. Sarah Sallon, who directs the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, became interested in the ancient date palm as a possible source of medicines.
She enlisted Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura to coax the seeds out of dormancy.
One sprouted. Scientists initially estimated its age at about 2,000 years old based on carbon dating of other seeds found at the site, but they had no way of directly testing the planted seed without risking its chance of survival.
After the Methuselah seed germinated, Solowey found fragments of the seed shell clinging to the roots — enough for dating.
Researchers reported that the seed dates from 60 B.C. to A.D. 95, similar to the other seeds from the site.
That placed the seed at Masada around the Roman siege in 73, when, according to the ancient historian Josephus, nearly 1,000 Jewish Zealots in the fortress committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to the Romans.
Sallon and her colleagues hope to cultivate more ancient date seeds and eventually reintroduce the Judean date palm to the area. "It should be there because that's where it belongs," she said.
They also plan to test the tree for the medicinal properties hinted at in historical writings. "Is it really the tree of life?" Sallon asked.
That question won't be answered until around 2010, when — if female — Methuselah might bear fruit.