Page last updated at 17:22 GMT, Tuesday, 14 April 2009 18:22 UK

Ancient medicines were alcoholic

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Tomb of Scorpion I
Archaeologists found chambers full of wine jars in an ancient pharaoh's tomb

A team of researchers in the US has discovered traces of a medicinal alcoholic drink in bottles that are more than 5,000 years old.

The scientists extracted wine compounds and plant-derived ingredients from a jar taken from the tomb of one of the first pharaohs of Egypt, Scorpion I.

This is the earliest sample of a human-made medicine.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Patrick McGovern, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, led the research.

The vessels that he and his team tested came from excavated tombs in southern Egypt - the earliest of which dates from 3150BC.

"This is the earliest Egyptian vessel ever found to have wine in it," Professor McGovern told BBC News.

"It shows that, by trial and error, humans were discovering remedies over 5,000 years ago, and that alcoholic beverages were a key part of the discovery process."

Designing medicine

The team used organic solvents to extract residues from inside the jars.

Ancient Egyptian wine vessel
Researchers extracted residues of wine laced with herbs and other additives

With extremely sensitive chemical techniques, they were then able to separate the different compounds within the residue.

The jars tested positive for tartaric acid - a reliable chemical marker for grape and wine in the Middle East.

The scientists also found compounds from a number of herbs, some of which have known medicinal properties, and from tree resin.

Professor McGovern pointed out that alcoholic drinks would have been ideal for dissolving these plant-derived substances.

"As well as adding flavour, these compounds were likely to have been used with a medicinal aim in mind," he said.

His team also tested residue from inside a later Egyptian jar, or amphora, dating from between the 4th and 6th Centuries.

He now wants to find out if some of the ancient remedies he found could be revived.

Professor McGovern has started a collaboration with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center, testing compounds found in ancient fermented beverages from China, including the earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world, dated to 7000BC.

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