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Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wine Could Hold Clues to Cancer Prevention

New archeological research has found that Egyptians were adding herbs to wine to enhance their medicinal effects more than 5,000 years ago. That is 1,300 years earlier than previously known. University of Pennsylvania researcher Patrick McGovern says the Egyptians recognized that they could use wine to prepare and preserve herbal medicines.

"Alcoholic beverages such as wine are really ideal for putting these plant products into solution, because they dissolve the plant materials and you get some of the very powerful compounds released. And then you can either apply it directly to the skin or consume it as a beverage."

Early Egyptian medical accounts, written on papyrus, indicate herbs dissolved into alcoholic beverages were being used as pain relievers, laxatives and even aphrodisiacs. Modern chemical analysis of the residues from wine containers turned up a host of additives.

"We were able to identify, you know, based on the compounds, we had like a whole host of different compounds that were associated with various herbs - things like coriander, mint, rosemary," McGovern says.

He says the investigation into ancient medicinal beverages has taken on new importance because of an earlier discovery - the anti-cancer properties of 3,000-year-old Chinese rice wine that contained the herb wormwood.

"This one compound in particular shows very good anti-cancer effects - I mean really remarkable effects. So we're doing the same thing with the Egyptian plants, looking at those for the same reason."

McGovern is now collaborating with cancer researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center to test herbal compounds found in a variety of ancient wines from both Egypt and China. His report appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.