Egyptian "Scorpion King" Made Medicine From Herbs & Booze 5k Years Ago

By Eliza Strickland | April 14, 2009 1:45 pm

Egyptian wine jarAbout 5,000 years ago the ancient Egyptians were already mixing herbs and tree resins into their wine to make natural medicines, according to a new analysis of the chemical traces left behind in wine jars. 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 [National Geographic News], says lead researcher Patrick McGovern, an archaeochemist.

Literary evidence of such drinks had already been brought to light. Ancient Egyptian papyri dating from about 1850 B.C. contained recipes for concoctions to treat a variety of ailments, with many of the recipes involving wine mixed with herbs…. But scientists had not found remnants of any such health-preserving beverages until now [Science News]. The new findings also push back the date at which Egyptians were known to be dabbling in medicinal mixology by more than 1,000 years. The chemical compounds found in the ancient jars may have come from coriander, mint, sage, rosemary, and pine tree resin, researchers say.

For the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed two ancient jars spanning the history of the ancient Egyptian kingdom. One of the jars dates from circa 3150 B.C. and was found in a tomb in Abydos in upper Egypt. The tomb belonged to one of the first pharaohs, Scorpion I. The other jar dates from between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. and was found in the Gebel Adda site in southern Egypt. “We deliberately chose samples from an early and a late time point in ancient Egyptian culture,” McGovern says [Science News].

McGovern wants to do more than just study the Egyptians’ wine vessels; his next step, he says, is to use 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” [National Geographic News].

Related Content:
80beats: The First Chocoholics: Native Americans Imported Cacao From 1,200 Miles Away
DISCOVER: Stone Age Beer tells of scientists who recreate (and drink) 9,000-year-old beer

Image: W. Pratt / Royal Ontario Museum

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • Jumblepudding

    If the movie about the scorpion king is to be believed, he probably also had access to ancient steroids.

  • Scorpio

    Coriander, mint, sage, rosemary, and pine tree resin effective for the treatment of cancer. Right.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Jumblepudding: Heh. Next thing you know professional baseball players will be mixing rosemary with pine resin to see what happens.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    A pretty interesting idea. I mean, the History Channel is still showing shows where people argue that the pyramids had to have been built by ALIENS because there’s no way primitive man could have built them or Stonehenge or the pyramids of South America.

    Of course, the knowledge we have lost from them is as incalculable as the way they built those pyramids (hint: wasn’t aliens). Egyptians kept their writings on papyrus. The tombs and everything covered in hieroglyphs is the ancient world’s version of a billboard. Could you imagine what you would think of our society if all you knew of them was the buildings and signs we put on them?

    I mean, one man created a way to move sarsen-type stones BY HIMSELF. It was laborious, but do-able, and the way he did it wouldn’t leave a trace behind. And for those of you who don’t know me and are rolling your eyes at me, here’s the youtube video of the man doing it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRRDzFROMx0 Gravity is the enemy AND the friend. (this guy even moved a whole barn for fun at one point)

    Again, the amount of knowledge we have lost from the ancients is incalculable. Check the Kerkythea mechanism and others. Knowledge was jealously guarded, so they wouldn’t have written it down. Even today, you have to pay hundreds or hundreds of thousands of dollars to be admitted to the educated cognoscenti ($300k to be a MD at some places) and attain all the knowledge. We write the knowledge down now, but don’t widely distribute it. It too could be lost (thermonuclear war) and if any man survives, their society will look back upon ours and wonder at the lost technologies we employed. Stuff like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX6clRC21vo&NR=1 may not make it, so they’ll never know, but there would be some ruined cities full of skyscraping architecture and billboards and what-not that they’d piece together some of the knowledge we had. Maybe if someone wrote about liquid metal they’d attribute it to alchemy or religion or science fiction.

    So who’s to know what’s been lost?

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Who truly knows the knowledge lost through time,chance, and war.

  • Mark D

    Most of our antibiotics are taken or isolated from mold or dirt… for that matter we don’t even truly know for sure how most of our modern medicines work. “Cure for cancer” is overstating things yes, but any ancient medicines are very much worth investigating.

  • Jo

    Certainly we don’t know how some modern medicines work … but none of these substances are anything new, and certainly not uncommon. I think the issue is the assumption that ancient knowledge bears a wisdom that modern medicine has overlooked, simply because that knowledge is old. It’s a seductive idea, and one that sells a lot of hooey.

    It’s very cool to discover just how advanced some ancient civilizations were. Knowing whether or not these concoctions actually had beneficial effects is important because it tells us something about how they gathered knowledge and how effective they were at evaluating it — not because it’s going to rediscover some ancient miracle cure.

  • http://muh-fitrah.blogspot.com/ muhfitrah

    what the rock still the actor?
    i like your article very grade and good quality. i will save your link in my favorite page and i will visit your blog again. thanks

  • N8

    Half the story has never been told. This is what they won’t tell you in school or the news.

    The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1,550 B.C.) from Ancient Egypt describes medical marijuana. Other ancient Egyptian papyri that mention medical marijuana are the Ramesseum III Papyrus (1700 BC), the Berlin Papyrus (1300 BC) and the Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus VI (1300 BC). The ancient Egyptians even used hemp (cannabis) in suppositories for relieving the pain of hemorrhoids. The egyptologist Lise Manniche notes the reference to “plant medical marijuana” in several Egyptian texts, one of which dates back to the eighteenth century B.C.

    Give me truth.

  • Delta Broad

    Herbs and plants have always been useful to animals including humans. This is well known to anyone who reads a variety of nonfiction. Most of the medicine today is human engineered copies of chemicals discovered in plants. Aspirin may be one which is known by the most people. It is salicylic acid derived from willow tree branches if I remember correctly. Cows and other animals will eat rotting, fermenting fruit; apparently they enjoy getting typsy or drunk as much as people do. Chimps will eat leaves of certain plants, when they become infested with symbiotic pests(tapeworms for example), which rids them of the pests. People can still buy valerian root today which is used as a sedative, anti-convulsant, migraine treatment and pain reliever. According to Wikipedia no one knows exactly how the chemical compounds in valerian work either. Some scientists have some guesses, however, which are printed on the wikipedia site.

    When a chemical is discovered (in a plant, animal, dirt or mold)which ameliorates, prevents or cures something, phamaceutical companies immediately try to beat the other companies with their most effective manmade copy of the ‘drug.’ Why do they create their own version you might ask? The company can not take out a patent giving them the exclusive rights to sell and profit from a drug unless it is something not existing in nature. Or more simply put, no one can copyright Nature. This is why many people are no longer aware that medicines come from nature. All we hear about is the time and money invested by pharma incorporated to “invent” medicines.

    However it is also why we continue to hear some people talk about the disappearing flora and fauna as tragic because we may lose as yet unknown chemical compounds in as yet undiscovered plants and animals; killed by global warming and human over population razing their habitat, the earth, to build farms and cities.

    For anyone interested in actually learning the facts about herbs and medicine, check out a book on- you guessed it- herbal medicine. Books on herbal medicine have been written for as long as writing has been common, in countries/civilizations you may have heard of such as Egypt(Thanks N8), Sumeria(Iraq), Greece, China, Rome/Italy … Or if you are not the bookish type, you could visit one of those natural health food stores that sell all kinds of herbs as natural medicines.

    It may be news to you, but, IT’s NOT NEW.

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