9 Jul 2011

Ancient Manuscripts

Origins Revealed by DNA

Thousands of manuscripts produced in medieval times still exist today, but scholars have long bickered over when and where most of these works came into being. Now North Carolina State University professor Timothy Stinson is revealing their origins with DNA.
Many of these documents were written on parchment made from animal skin, and Stinson is working to perfect techniques for extracting and analyzing the DNA contained in these skins with the long-term goal of creating a genetic database that can be used to determine when and where a particular handwritten document was written. "Dating and localizing manuscripts has historically presented persistent problems," Stinson says, "because they have largely been based on the handwriting and dialect of the scribes who created the manuscripts - techniques that have proven unreliable for a number of reasons."
Stinson says genetic testing will do much to resolve these issues. Each of these documents can provide a wealth of genetic data, Stinson explains, because a typical medieval parchment book includes the skins of more than 100 animals. The data can then be compared to baseline data obtained by analyzing the relatively small number of parchment books that can in fact be reliably dated and localized.
Once Stinson has created a baseline of DNA markers with known dates and localities, he can take samples from documents of unknown origin. Stinson can then determine what degree of relationship there is between the animals whose skins were used in handwritten books of unknown origin and those used in the baseline manuscripts. He expects the comparison will enable him to identify genetic similarities indicating the time and place where a book was written.
On a larger scale, Stinson says, this research "will also allow us to trace the trade route of parchments" throughout the medieval world - a scholarly achievement that would provide a wealth of data on the evolution of the book industry during the Middle Ages.

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