King Scorpion I and medicinal wine in ancient Egypt

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Archaeologists have recently uncovered the 5,000 year old stockpile of wine that belonged to one of the first Egyptian pharaohs, Scorpion I.  The wine had been mixed with natural medicines, a practice that was previously believed to have started centuries later.

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Patrick McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and his colleagues found the residue of herbs, tree resins, and other natural substances inside the wine jars, all additives were probably added for their medical benefits, although they may have also added flavour to the wine.

According to McGovern, 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.

Previously, the earliest known date of the practice of adding medicinal substances to drinks or ‘mixology’ was around 1850 BC, when Papyrus detailed recipes for these medical brews.  The April 2009 study puts the date back to 3350 BC making it by far the earliest know example of mixology, although later the practice was common in the ancient world.  According to McGovern,

“Over thousands of years, humans were searching their environment and trying to find natural medicinal materials. They were tested empirically over generations, but then many were lost.”   He goes on to say, “We’re trying to rediscover why ancient people thought these particular herbs were medically useful and seeing if they are effective for the treatment of cancer or other modern diseases.”

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