The Turin Shroud is one of the most controversial objects in human history, and a new study of the DNA found in its organic material has just added to the mystery.
The Shroud is kept in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, northern Italy. It is a length of linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have suffered physical trauma consistent with crucifixion after being beaten, scourged and crowned with thorns.
It is believed by some to be the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, although radiocarbon analysis of samples taken from the edge of the cloth date it to the Medieval period, roughly 1260 – 1390 AD. The results of this carbon dating are, however, disputed by some scientists and historians, who believe the Medieval age is not compatible with the production technology of the linen nor with the chemistry of fibers in the internal part of the cloth.
The Shroud bears many marks caused by human blood, fire, water and dirt, but there is no reliable evidence of how the image itself was produced.
A team of Italian geneticists, led by Professor Gianni Barcaccia of the University of Padova, has attempted to shed some light on the Shroud’s origins by analysing DNA from dust particles on both the body image and the edges. Their findings were published today in the journal Nature.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the world on the Shroud. Over the centuries, it has been displayed in, or been in very close contact with, a wide variety of natural and anthropological environments.
It bears pollen from a variety of plant species over a diverse geographic range – from cultivated plains, to woodlands, to mountain forests. Some species originated around the Mediterranean area and were widely distributed throughout Europe before the age of Christ. However, other species native to the Eastern USA and China could not have been introduced to the Shroud until after the travels of Marco Polo and the discoveries of Christopher Columbus. The most abundant plant species found on the Shroud was from a spruce tree which grows in the Swiss Alps, which accords with records of the Shroud’s journey through the French-Italian Alps in 1578 when it was moved from Chambéry to Turin.
A few animal DNA sequences were also detected. One sequence matched the southern grey shrike, a bird resident in Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Near East. Another sequence corresponded to a marine worm common in the Northern Pacific Ocean, next to Canada.
As far as human DNA is concerned, the team detected mitochondrial sequences from many individuals of different ethnic origins, including the extremely rare Haplogroup L3c found only in East Africa. The most diverse ranges of DNA were found on the edges of the Shroud, which were not only in contact with the external environment much more than the internal body image, but were also more frequently handled.
The more protected internal parts of the linen cloth containing the body image bore a less diverse range that clustered into haplogroups typical of Western Europe, the Near East and the Arabian Peninsula. Surprisingly, there was also a cluster of haplogroups M39, M56, R7 and R8 typical of the Indian subcontinent, with the latter essentially present only in Eastern India.
The range of DNA discovered by the team does not solve the mystery of the Shroud’s origins, either in Medieval Europe, or the ancient Near East. It does, however, raise the intriguing possibility of its manufacture in India. It is of course possible that, over the centuries, individuals of Indian ancestry came into contact with Shroud. However, the Shroud’s Italian name – Sindone – may also derive from Sindia or Sindien, a fabric woven in India.