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Medicinal wines in early ancient Egypt

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Early Egyptian wine jar with lid (Callie Jones)

Thanks to the discovery of medical papyri dating back as far as about 1850BC, we have long known that the pharmacopoeia of the ancient Egyptians depended largely on alcoholic beverages, tree resins and herbs.

The papyri include recipes for many medicinal products made by macerating resins and herbs in wine or beer.

This documentary evidence for ancient Egyptian pharmacy has now been reinforced by chemical analysis that takes the origin of wine-based medicines back a further 1,300 years to the beginning of Egyptian dynastic history.

The research is reported this month (April 2009) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in an article by a team led by Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, who set out to update a study carried out 15 years ago.

In 1994, Dr McGovern and colleagues analysed the content of a jar from the tomb of one of Egypt’s first pharaohs, Scorpion I, who died in about 3150BC. They found that the material, the residue of a liquid that had long ago evaporated from the jar, contained calcium tartrate, which is a biological marker for grape products.

The identification of a DNA fragment derived from a wine yeast indicated that the grape product was wine. The researchers also found evidence of a tree resin that, through its antioxidant action, would have prevented further fermentation to vinegar.

In the more recent research, Dr McGovern’s team used combinatorial analytical techniques with names so long that I do not have room for them here. Using these techniques, the researchers found evidence that the wine had also contained aromatic herbs.

The evidence took the form of eight terpenoid compounds, to wit, linalool, camphor, borneol, l-menthol, alpha-terpineol, carvone, thymol and geranyl acetone.

Although no single herb is known to contain all eight of those terpenoids, they could have been derived from a combination of herbs native to the eastern Mediterranean region — plants such as balm, coriander, germander, mint, sage, savory, senna and thyme.  

Alcoholic tinctures were a mainstay of British and European pharmacy until late in the 20th century. And now we know that they have a history going back more than 5,000 years.

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