A few weeks ago, I wrote about visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Pacific Science Center and learning how DNA analysis is being used to help put pieces of the scrolls together.
One of the mysteries that was discussed in the exhibit was the question of whether the members of the religous sect living in nearby Qumran were the authors or at least the owners of the scrolls.
It appears that the owners left other clues behind that have answered this question.
One of the distinctive aspects of the Essenes, who lived in Qumran, was their obsession with achieving purity. So obsessed were they, in fact, that they documented the kinds things about their lives that normally disappear from everyday conversation once children are beyond a certain age:
From the Seattle Times:
The Essenes are one of the few ancient groups whose toiletry practices were documented. The first century Jewish historian Josephus noted that members of the group normally went outside the city and dug a hole, where they buried their waste.
Apparently this practice was discussed in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. In fact:
Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls note that the latrines should be situated northwest of the settlement, at a distance of 1,000 to 3,000 cubits -- about 450 to 1,350 yards -- and out of sight of the settlement.
This turned out to be a useful clue. Two experts on ancient latrines found the site near Qumran, based on the description in the Scrolls, and dug up samples. Not only did the samples confirm that this site was an ancient toilet, it appears to have been teaming with pathogens.
Zias sent samples to anthropologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, who found preserved eggs and other remnants of roundworms, tapeworms and pinworms, all human intestinal parasites.
Samples from the surrounding areas contained no parasites. Had the waste been dumped on the surface, as is the practice of Bedouins in the area, the parasites quickly would have been killed by sunlight. Buried, they could persist for a year or longer, infecting anyone who walked through the soil.
Ironically, the purity rituals that the Essenes followed may have shortened their lives by constantly exposing them to intestinal pathogens. The bathing cisterns that they passes through on the way back to the settlement could have contributed to spreading intestinal parasites and bacteria.
"The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever studied in over 30 years," Zias said. Fewer than 6 percent of the men buried there survived to age 40, he said. In contrast, cemeteries from the same period excavated at Jericho show that half the males lived beyond age 40.
Thomas Maugh II. "Toilet evidence links Dead Sea Scrolls to sect." Seattle Times, Nov 14, 2006.