What does an ancient date taste like? Scientists recently found out.
Sarah Sallon, a doctor at the Natural Medicine Research Center in Hadassah, and Elaine Solowey, an expert in arid agriculture, wanted to see if they could germinate the ancient seeds of a date palm excavated at Masada near the Dead Sea. In the fall of 2020, dates with a chewy texture, and a subtle sweetness were harvested.
The connection to the past brought hope. “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,” Sallon told the New York Times last year. “To pollinate and produce these incredible dates is like a beam of light in a dark time.”
As National Geographic reported, the scientists decided to call the tree Methuselah, after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible who lived to the age of 969.
Closely connected to the history of human migrations, the first cultivated varieties of Phoenix dactylifera, commonly known as the date palm, are thought to have originated around Mesopotamia and the Upper Arabian Gulf some 6,000 to 6,700 years ago. In ancient Rome, dates were the premier sweetener as there was no chocolate or sugar. They were used in appetizers, main courses, and desserts.
Dates also have strong religious symbolism in the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Jewish tradition, dates are one of the seven species of sacred fruits and grains. It is also believed that the Virgin Mary, while leaning against a date tree in agony during labor, heard a voice telling her to shake the tree so its ripe dates would fall, and she could eat from them. In Islam, dates are used to break the daylong fast during the holy month of Ramadan. They are also believed to have medicinal properties, as they are a good source of antioxidants, and have an antimicrobial effect amongst other benefits.
Methuselah grew to maturity, but needed a female mate to produce fruit. So, Sallon gathered 34 other ancient seeds from Masada and other archaeological sites in the Judean desert. Six sprouted and were named after biblical figures. When the plants germinated, Methuselah found his match in Hannah. Hannah’s seed came from an ancient burial cave in Wadi el-Makkukh near Jericho, now in the West Bank, and was carbon dated to between the first and fourth centuries B.C., becoming one of the oldest known seeds to have ever been germinated.
These reborn dates not only give us a taste of ancient life and a view of the past, but they also bring us hope that with resilience, faith, and hard work, even a seed buried for thousands of years can come back to life.
To honor the resilient little ancient date, we wanted to share a few date-based recipes by chefs Joanne Ponvanit and Gino Pineda, for you to enjoy.
Date and Apple Kale Salad
This tasty, easy-to-make salad contains healthy vegetables like baby kale and carrots, as well as the sweet Medjool dates that make it absolutely healthy to have a sweet tooth.
Greatest thing since sliced bread! And if you don’t know how to make buttermilk, fear not, for this recipe includes instructions.
You can also have a “date night” with food archaeologist Farrell Monaco as she recreates a 2,000-year-old dessert of honeyed dates and shares a brief history of this ancient fruit.