Rare manuscripts dubbed the "dead sea scrolls of Buddhism" have been carbon dated to the first and fifth centuries AD by Australian scientists, and could be the missing link in Buddhist history, a local scholar says.
Mark Allon, a University of Sydney research fellow, commissioned the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) to carry out tests on two international collections of birch bark scrolls.
The scrolls, written in an ancient language derived from Sanskrit and known as the Senior collection and the Schoyen collection, are privately owned.
They were discovered in Afghanistan during the war-torn country's post-Soviet upheaval, making their way into the antiquities market in the period of Taliban rule.
The results of ANSTO's carbon testing showed that two manuscripts from the Senior collection date between the years 130 and 250 AD, and three of the Schoyen texts date between the first and fifth century AD.
Dr Allon, who is translating the texts, said the date confirmation was a step towards filling the historical void that existed before the scrolls' discovery.
"Buddhism was originally an oral tradition, but little is known about how it developed from spoken word to written word, so the discovery and date confirmation will give us a unique insight into the development of Buddhist literature," Dr Allon said.
"In addition, although Buddhism flourished throughout Asia and there is an enormous amount of literature available, it totally disappeared from India, central Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, and with it many literary traditions.
"The new manuscripts are therefore the missing link in the historical chain."
He said dating the Senior collection had been particularly important in correcting some chronological errors in Indian history.