Old Books' DNA May Reveal When, Where They Were Made

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2009

The animal-skin pages used in early medieval manuscripts contain genetic material capable of solving long-standing mysteries about the works, according to new research.

Before paper was widely used, European books were written on parchment made from the treated skins of calves, young sheep, and goats.

"What I was looking for was a way to date and localize these manuscripts," said Timothy Stinson, an English professor at North Carolina State University.

"In the past, we used an analysis of handwriting and an analysis of the dialects" of the scribes who created the manuscripts, Stinson said.

"But these were fairly inexact," he said, noting that dates determined by this method could be off by a half-century.

Stinson wondered if the pages held enough intact animal DNA to provide useful information, so he called his brother, C. Michael Stinson, a biologist at Southside Virginia Community College.

After several years of testing, Timothy Stinson will present the brothers' preliminary findings next week at the annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America in New York City.

(Related: "Ancient Texts as 'Fossils': How They Survive" [February 28, 2005].)

Below the Surface

Other medieval historians and literature scholars have wondered if viable DNA could be found in parchment, but specialists in the humanities don't often have ready access to biology expertise, Timothy Stinson explained.

"For me, it occurred to me, and I had someone to ask right away," he said, referring to his brother. "He actually knew what to do and what labs to send [the manuscripts] to for testing."

Rather than risking damage to a museum's manuscripts, the Stinsons bought their own collection of parchment leaves from a 15th-century French work.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.