Fake? DNA Testing Deepens Mystery of Shroud of Turin

New analysis of DNA from the Shroud of Turin reveals that people from all over the world have touched the venerated garment.

Is it a medieval fake or a relic of Jesus Christ? A new analysis of DNA from the Shroud of Turin reveals that people from all over the world have touched the venerated garment.

"Individuals from different ethnic groups and geographical locations came into contact with the Shroud [of Turin] either in Europe (France and Turin) or directly in their own lands of origin (Europe, northeast Africa, Caucasus, Anatolia, Middle East and India)," study lead author Gianni Barcaccia, a geneticist at the University of Padua in Italy and lead author of the new study describing the DNA analysis, said in an email. "We cannot say anything more on its origin."

The new findings don't rule out either the notion that the long strip of linen is a medieval forgery or that it's the true burial shroud of Jesus Christ, the researchers said.

The Shroud of Turin Through History

Long-standing debate On its face, the Shroud of Turin is an unassuming piece of twill cloth that bears traces of blood and a darkened imprint of a man's body. Though the Catholic Church has never taken an official stance on the object's authenticity, tens of thousands flock to Turin, Italy, every year to get a glimpse of the object, believing that it wrapped the bruised and bleeding body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

According to legend, the shroud was secretly carried from Judea in A.D. 30 or 33, and was housed in Edessa, Turkey, and Constantinople (the name for Istanbul before the Ottomans took over) for centuries. After crusaders sacked Constantinople in A.D. 1204, the cloth was smuggled to safety in Athens, Greece, where it stayed until A.D. 1225.

However, the Catholic Church only officially recorded its existence in A.D. 1353, when it showed up in a tiny church in Lirey, France. Centuries later, in the 1980s, radiocarbon dating, which measures the rate at which different isotopes of the carbon atoms decay, suggested the shroud was made between A.D. 1260 and A.D. 1390, lending credence to the notion that it was an elaborate fake created in the Middle Ages. (Isotopes are forms of an element with a different number of neutrons.)

But critics argued that the researchers used patched-up portions of the cloth to date the samples, which could have been much younger than the rest of the garment.

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What's more, the Gospel of Matthew notes that "the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open" after Jesus was crucified. So geologists have argued that an earthquake at Jesus' death could have released a burst of neutrons. The neutron burst not only would have thrown off the radiocarbon dating but also would have led to the darkened imprint on the shroud.

Global traveler?

In the current study, Barcaccia and his colleagues analyzed dust that they vacuumed from the shroud that contained traces of both plant and human DNA.

The plant DNA came from all over the world, the researchers reported Oct. 5 in the journal Scientific Reports. European spruce trees; Mediterranean clovers, ryegrasses and plantains; North American black locust trees; and rare East Asian pear and plum trees all left their mark on the cloth.

Shroud of Turin: Could Quake Explain Face of Jesus?

The team also sequenced the human mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed from mother to child) found in dust from the shroud. The genetic lineage, or haplotype, of the DNA snippets suggested that people ranging from North African Berbers to East Africans to inhabitants of China touched the garment.

Still, the strongest genetic signals seemed to come from areas in and around the Middle East and the Caucasus - not far from where Jesus was buried, and consistent with the early folklore surrounding the object. [The 10 Most Controversial Miracles]

"One of the most abundant human mitochondrial haplotypes, among those discovered on the shroud, is still very rare in western Europe, and it is typical of the Druze community, an ethnic group that has some origin in Egypt and that lives mainly in restricted areas between Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine," Barcaccia told Live Science in an email.

The oldest DNA snippets (which tend to be shorter because DNA breaks down over time) are found in many places on the shroud, and come from genetic lineages typically found only in India, Barcaccia said. That finding suggests that the shroud was manufactured in India before somehow making its way to Europe, as Indians had little contact with Europeans at the time of its origin.

Photos: Ancient Tomb Holds Jesus Mystery

"In my opinion, it is hard to believe that in the past centuries, in a historical interval spanning the medieval period, different subjects - such as priests, monks or nuns, as well devotees and other subjects of Indian ancestry - have had the possibility to come in contact with the shroud in France and/or Turin," Barcaccia said.

Unsettled question But the new results don't settle questions about the shroud's authenticity, said Hugh Farey, editor of the British Society of the Turin Shroud newsletter. [Who Was Jesus, the Man?]

As far as the plant DNA goes, "they've done a good job, and they've identified a number of species that mean, broadly speaking, nothing at all," Farey told Live Science.

The new study suffers from the same issues that made past studies of pollen on the shroud unreliable, said Renée Enevold, a geoscientist at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark who has analyzed ancient pollen in the past.

Big Pic: Close-Up of Latest Shroud of Turin Claim

"The plant DNA could be from many sources, and there is no way of finding the right source," Enevold told Live Science in an email. "Also, the sub-genus level of taxon that has been reached is not near enough to the species level that is needed to determine the area of origin for each plant."

The researchers also mistakenly relied on an interpretative method that is used to analyze thousands of grains of pollen in a lake, she said. In that environment, the conditions that led to the deposition of pollen - rain and wind, for instance - are known. In contrast, there are so many unknowns when it comes to describing how dust settled onto the shroud.

"It is very bold and completely wrong to use the same interpretational approach on the presence of DNA - or just a few pollen grains, for that matter - on a shroud that has been man-handled for decades," Enevold said.

Given that the cloth was publicly displayed for centuries, it's not surprising that so many people touched it, Farey added. "Apart from ruling out the United States of America as the source for the shroud, it leaves just about everything else open," Farey said.

As for the possible Indian manufacture, it's just as likely that Indian DNA got onto the object during its 20th-century testing, he said. To truly determine where the cloth was manufactured, the researchers would need to analyze the DNA from the flax seeds used to make the linen shroud, which was not done, he added.

Still, Farey said he's about 40 percent convinced the shroud is authentic and about 60 percent inclined to believe it is a forgery.

"There is a pretty substantial amount of evidence on both sides," Farey said. "So the proper thing to do is to maintain an open mind at the moment."

However, using DNA analysis and more sophisticated scientific techniques could ultimately settle the question, Farey said. For instance, geologists can now determine the origin of rock with incredible precision, by analyzing its ratio of isotopes of certain elements. If researchers can one day figure out how to test the isotopes in the limestone dust found on the shroud, they could say with greater certainty whether the shroud was ever in Jerusalem, he said.

Original article on Live Science.

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The Shroud of Turin is is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, revealing the face of Christ as it was impressed in a strip of linen.

Long History The Shroud of Turin is is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, revealing the face of Christ as it was impressed in a strip of linen. The first documented reference of the shroud dates to 1357, when the linen was displayed in a church in Lirey, France. Believers contend that the shroud is the "cloth with an image on it," reported by the early Christian historian Eusebius to have been given to the Christian King Abgar V of Edessa in 30 A.D.  According to this account, the cloth, known as the Mandylion of Edessa, was taken to Constantinople in 944. It  disappeared in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. 

First Showing This image, incised on copper, dating back to 1578, represents a public showing of the Holy Shroud in Turin in 1578. First recorded as being in the possession of Geoffrey de Charny, a French soldier who died at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, the shroud changed hands until it was acquired in 1453 by the royal Italian House of Savoy. It was then relocated to Chambery, France, where it was damaged by a fire in 1532. In 1578 it was moved to Turin in northern Italy, where it was frequently paraded through the streets.

First Photo In 1898, a lawyer named Secondo Pia took the first known photograph of the shroud, shown here.

The Face Secondo Pia's negative of the first image of the Shroud of Turin reveals what many see as the outline of the face and body of a crucified man. Scientific interest in the 14-foot-long linen cloth followed.

First Television Appearance In 1973, the shroud was shown for the first time on television, with an introduction by Pope Paul VI. Also in 1973, the shroud was secretly examined by a commission of experts, who took cloth and surface dust samples. The results of the investigation, published three years later, pointed to the presence of pollen from plants unique to Israel and Turkey. This suggested the linen had been exposed to the air in these countries.

First Examinations In 1978, the shroud underwent a five-day examination. The linen was submitted to photographic floodlighting, low-power X-rays and narrow-band ultraviolet light. Dozens of pieces of sticky tape were pressed onto its surface and removed. A side edge was unstitched and an apparatus inserted between the shroud and its backing cloth to examine the underside. The bottom edge was also unstitched and examined.

More Scrutiny Barrie Schwortz, the photographer for the 1978 investigations, told Discovery News, "We used X-rays, ultra-violet and spectral imaging and photographed every inch of it in the most minute detail, but we still couldn't come up with the answer to the single question we had come to ask: 'How was the image formed?'" 

"The Shroud of Turin is Medieval" In 1988, a sample of the shroud was removed for radiocarbon testing. Three laboratories carried out the tests. In 1989, the results, published in the journal Nature, held that the radiocarbon tests show "the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval." One of the researchers, Edward Hall, told journalists, "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it."

The Fire In 1997, a fire broke out in Turin's Guarini Chapel, which housed the shroud. Fireman Mario Trematore used a sledgehammer to break open the shroud’s case, and it was taken temporarily to Cardinal Saldarini's residence. The linen was completely unaffected by the fire.

The Shroud, Enhanced A computer-enhanced image of the face on the Shroud. In 2002, textile experts, headed by Mechtild Fleury-Lemberg of Switzerland, performed a dramatic and radical restoration of the shroud with the full permission of the Vatican. They removed 30 patches sewn into the cloth by nuns in 1534 to repair burn holes. They removed the backing cloth that was sewn onto the back of the shroud in 1534 and photographed the hidden back side of the cloth.

New Face? Photos of the back side of the shroud allowed new investigations. Indeed, in 2004, Giulio Fanti and Roberto Maggiolo of the University of Padua in Italy, reported finding a faint second face on the backside of the linen. They published their findings in the Journal of Optics A: Pure and Applied Optics.

Thread Thread extracted from the shroud by G. Riggi di Numana. The thread was taken from an area near where the 1988 radiocarbon test was performed. In 2005, researchers M. Sue Benford and Joseph Marino suggested that the shroud had been expertly rewoven in the precise location from which the carbon-14 sample was taken. In a peer-reviewed paper, chemist Raymond Rogers supported the finding, saying, "As unlikely as it seems, the sample used to test the age of the Shroud of Turin in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area of the shroud...The radiocarbon date was thus not valid for determining the true age of the shroud."

Reconstructing the Body A computer reconstruction of the body's outline is shown at left. To the right is a 3-D reconstruction. Various computer simulations have tried to reconstruct  the body impressed on the shroud, but nobody has been able to explain how the image was formed.

Now in High-Tech In 2008 the shroud was photographed and filmed for the first time in high definition, producing a huge 12.8 billion-pixel image. Technicians from HAL9000, a company specializing in art photography, stitched together 1,600 shots, each the size of a credit card, to create a huge photo which is almost 1,300 times stronger than a picture taken with a 10 million pixel camera. "It is like looking at the shroud through a microscope," Mauro Gavinelli, technical supervisor at HALL9000, told Discovery News. "You can see the threads, the fibers that make these threads, the damage that the shroud has suffered over the years."

The Church and the Shroud Pope John Paul II prays before the Shroud of Turin, in Turin's cathedral Sunday, May 24, 1998. The shroud has been on display only five times in the past century. It is one of the most venerated objects in the Roman Catholic Church. When it last went on display in 2000, more than three million people saw it. Many more are expected to see it when it next goes on show in 2025. The Catholic Church has remained agnostic on the authenticity of the shroud, and has made no official pronouncements. When John Paul II visited the relic in 1998, he says, "As it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to pronounce itself on these questions. It entrusts the task of research to scientists, to arrive at appropriate answers for questions related to this cloth."