Ancient pharaohs sipped medicinal tipple

19 April 2009


Swigging back an aspirin dissolved in a glass of wine may not be a common way of taking medicines these days, but that was what the ancient Egyptians were up to at least 5000 years ago.

Photo of a bust of the pharoah HatshepsutA team of archaeologists have discovered traces of medicinal plants in ancient wine jars buried in the tomb of one of Egypt's first pharaohs, Scorpion I. This provides the first physical evidence that the ancient Egyptians prescribed themselves plants steeped in wine as herbal remedies.

In the study, published in the journal PNAS, Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the US and his team analysed residues left behind in ancient pottery wine jars excavated from a tomb in Abydos in upper Egypt, and found the chemical signature of tartaric acid, a good indicator that they once contained wine. They also isolated the chemical traces from several active compounds found in plants.

Plants contain all sorts of chemicals with powerful medical properties and they are the oldest form of natural medication that people have used all around the world for thousands of years. There are even other animals, including chimpanzees and starlings, that have learnt to use plants to treat various ailments.

Ancient Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1850 BC hint at the use of medicinal tipples, and this new discovery confirms the Egyptians had figured out the medicinal properties of various plants and that dissolving them in alcohol was a good way of administrating them. And it pushes back that date to at least 5000 years ago.

Now McGovern and his team are refining their analysis of the medicinal wine residues and hope to pinpoint which blend of herbs were used. They then plan to put them to the test and find out whether the Egyptians had struck on a combination of plants that could help treat diseases of the twenty-first century.


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