The Catholic Church has never officially recognized it. People have debated whether it’s a medieval forgery or the real thing for decades. And a new study that vacuumed dust from the surface of the Shroud of Turin hasn’t really proven a thing.
But it does hint that the artifact may have traveled all over the world, loosely confirming its biblical origin story. One thing this new study doesn’t do: either prove that the Shroud of Turin is a fake, or the real burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth.
This latest study in the saga that is the scientific study of the Shroud of Turin examined dust vacuumed from the cloth itself, which was found to contain plant and human DNA, LiveScience reported. The plant DNA contained a fascinating variety of strains: Mediterranean clovers, ryegrasses and plantains; North American black locust trees; rare East Asian pear and plum trees; and European spruce trees.
Scientists also sequenced human DNA found on the Shroud of Turin, discovering similarly international origins, including genes from North African Berbers, East Africans, and Chinese.
The “strongest DNA signals” came from the Middle East and Caucasus, not far from where Jesus was buried — that evidence supports the folklore surrounding the Shroud of Turin. And the most plentiful DNA has been traced to the Druze community, with its origins in Egypt and limited areas in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine.
The oldest DNA found on the Shroud of Turin is from India, leading researchers to conclude that the twill cloth was woven there before ending up in Europe.
Study author and geneticist Gianna Barcaccia from the University of Padua said his results show that the Shroud of Turin was touched by people visiting Europe when it was in France and Turin, or when the cloth visited them in Europe, northeast Africa, Caucasus, Anatolia, Middle East, and India.
“We cannot say anything more on its origin. In my opinion, it is hard to believe that in the past centuries … different subjects — such as priests, monks or nuns, as well [as] devotees and other subjects of Indian ancestry — have had the possibility to come in contact with the shroud in France and/or Turin.”
The Shroud of Turin’s story is well known. Believed to be the burial shroud of Jesus himself, the cloth is covered in blood and the darkened imprint of a man’s body. Legend has it that the Shroud of Turin was secreted from Judea shortly after Jesus’ death, taken to Edessa, Turkey, and Constantinople, where it remained for hundreds of years. When Crusaders invaded the city in 1204, the Shroud was smuggled to Greece. It stayed there for 20 years. By 1353, it had shown up in a church in France, which is when the Church finally noticed it.
In the modern era, people have spent lots of time trying to prove and disprove the Shroud of Turin‘s legend. In the 1980s, radiocarbon dating claimed dated it to the 13th or 14th centuries, effectively declaring it a fake, but that evidence is shaky. According to Real Clear Science, the sample used may be inaccurate (researchers tested patches, not original cloth), and the historic evidence contradicts the finding.
And some scientists have already questioned Barcaccia’s methods. A geoscientist named Renée Enevold said he used the wrong method to analyze the plant DNA, one which applies to pollen found in lakes; the conditions that caused the pollen to land there are known.
Enevold called Baraccia’s study methods “very bold and completely wrong,” since there are too many questions about the conditions that surrounded the Shroud of Turin when the dust settled onto its surface.
Hugh Farey, editor of the British Society of the Turin Shroud newsletter, also isn’t convinced. But he isn’t convinced the shroud is authentic either, split almost evenly between both possibilities.
“They’ve done a good job, and they’ve identified a number of species that mean, broadly speaking, nothing at all.”
And despite all this poking and prodding, science is still no closer to figuring out whether the Shroud of Turin is the sacred Christian artifact many people believe it is. The DNA discovered on it can have a couple explanations: it originated in Israel, as folklore attests, and traveled the world before coming to rest in Turin, or it was made in medieval Europe, and an international crowd flocked to see it.
This study doesn’t prove either, leaving the mystery of the Shroud of Turin intact.
[Photo By Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images]