Ancient Egyptians Drank Medicinal Wines

“Doctor’s orders,” the pharaohs may have said with a wink as they took swigs of wine.

At least 5,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians had begun a long-standing tradition of infusing their libations with medicinal herbs, according to a new chemical analysis of residues on wine jugs.

The earliest written evidence for the practice comes from Egyptian papyri that date to 1850 B.C. The new find pushes archaeological evidence for medicinal wines back to 3150 B.C., the beginning of Egyptian history. The wine jar was found in the tomb of Scorpion I, one of the first pharaohs.

“It makes sense that it is part of this ongoing tradition that eventually starts to get recorded around 1850 B.C.,” Patrick McGovern, an archaeochemist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told me.

McGovern is an expert on the origins and history of drinks that give a buzz. His new book, Uncorking the Past, is due out this fall.

Fruit and honey wines, he suggests, were likely available throughout human history.

“We don’t have the chemical evidence for it, it’s just based on what we can infer about how we’re attracted to sugar and alcohol, and how our enzymatic equipment, our livers, process it into energy, and how our brains and everything else are set up to drink an alcoholic beverage,” he said.

In addition, he noted, humans likely explored their environment in search of plants that had medicinal properties. “They didn’t have very long life spans, they were subject to lots of disease, so around the world, people would be exploring that possibility,” McGovern noted.

Through trial and error, our ancestors must have learned alcoholic beverages were an ideal means to administer these herbal concoctions, starting a long tradition of drinking medicinal wines, the theory goes.

Chemical analysis on the Egyptian pottery revealed several possible herbs mixed in with the ancient wine, including rosemary, coriander, mint, and sage as well as tree resins. What they treated, however, awaits further analysis and translation of the papyri.

McGovern and his colleagues report their latest research in a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

McGovern’s earlier work includes evidence of fermented beverages brewed in China some 9,000 years ago. Sam Calagione, owner of Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, collaborated with McGovern to brew a modern-day rendition of the drink, a beer called Chateau Jiahu.

(I wrote about Chateau Jiahu for National Geographic News in 2005.)

Previously, Calagione followed a 2,700-year-old recipe for a wine and mead-like drink McGovern found in a royal tomb in Turkey, perhaps that of King Midas. The result is Dogfish Head’s renowned Midas Touch.

No word, yet, whether the team will collaborate on a medicinal wine “but yeah, there’s a possibility we might do one of those,” McGovern said.