Five-thousand-year-old vessels rest in the tomb of Egypt's Pharaoh Scorpion I. An April 2009 study of residues in wine containers from the tomb uncovered traces of medicinal herbs.
Photograph courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum
By Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News
April 13, 2009
Deep inside the tomb of Scorpion I (no relation to the Rock), scientists discovered Egypt's oldest wines.
And now it appears the 5,000-year-old wines were spiked with natural medicines—centuries before the practice was thought to exist in Egypt, researchers say.
Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern and colleagues found chemical residues of herbs, tree resins, and other natural substances inside wine jars from the tomb, the previously discovered resting place of one of Egypt's first pharaohs.
While the additives may have been flavorful, they were picked for their medical benefits, said McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The early Egyptians "were living in a world without modern synthetic medicines, and they were very aware of the benefits that natural additives can have—especially if dissolved into an alcoholic medium, like wine or beer," which breaks down plant alkaloids.
Papyrus records from as long ago as 1850 B.C. detail how such medicinal tipples were made to treat a range of ailments.
"Now this chemical evidence pushes that date back another 1,500 years," McGovern said.
Scorpion I's wines predate the advent of Egyptian vineyards and were imports from the Jordan River valley.
The wines suggest that imports from the southeastern Mediterranean contributed to the Egyptian pharmacopoeia, which laid the groundwork for Greek and Roman medical traditions.
The wine find is just one of several from ancient Egypt, China, and elsewhere that document ancient medicinal mixology.
"Over thousands of years, humans were searching their environment and trying to find natural medicinal materials," McGovern said. "They were tested empirically over generations, but then many were lost."
Now, collaborating with researchers at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, McGovern's team is using biomolecular analysis to uncover the ancient wine-medicine recipes and hopefully put them to the test.
"We're trying to rediscover why ancient people thought these particular herbs were medically useful," he said, "and seeing if they are effective for the treatment of cancer or other modern diseases."