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Egyptian Herbal Wine: A 5,000-Year-Old Vintage
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found evidence of wine dating back to 3150 BCE (5,100 years ago) that may have been used for medicinal purposes.1,2 In one of the 700 jars buried with Scorpion I—also known as the Scorpion King, one of the first Egyptian pharaohs—was a jar with a residue that experts chemically analyzed and identified as wine.3

The new research was published online in April 2009 in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.1,2 According to this paper, the wine residue, called the Abydos sample, possibly contains tree resin (perhaps from pine [Pinus spp., Pinaceae] as a preservative), mint (Mentha spp., Lamiaceae), coriander (Coriandrum spp., Apiaceae), savory (Satureja spp., Lamiaceae), senna (Senna spp., Fabaceae), balm (Melissa spp., Lamiaceae), thyme (Thymus spp., Lamiaceae) and sage (Salvia spp., Lamiaceae).1 However, further testing is needed to establish the exact ingredients.

Another residue sample from a different tomb was also analyzed by the researchers and found to be wine. This wine sample, called the Gebel Adda sample—taken from the tomb of Gebel Adda and dated approximately 3,500 years after the Abydos sample— is thought to contain only pine resin, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Lamiaceae), and a member of the mint family, which has not yet been fully identified.

“There were a lot of additives in [the Abydos sample] wine, and it fits very well with the later Egyptian pharmacology texts, the medical papyri that describe similar kinds of alcoholic beverages with herbs in them,” said Patrick McGovern, PhD, according to an article by the Associated Press.4 “So the assumption is that, although we’re 1500 years before the earliest medical papyrus, in fact we’re looking at medicinal wine.” Dr. McGovern is the lead author of the study and senior research scientist and adjunct associate professor for the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) within the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Osama Kandil, PhD, chairman and CEO of Biopharm Group International and an expert on Egyptian herbs, said he also believes that the wine was created for medicinal purposes (e-mail, May 18, 2009). Dr. Kandil noted that Egyptians have a history of using medicinal plants, and other medicinal herbs have been found in Egyptian tombs, such as the discovery of black seed (Nigella sativa, Ranunculaceae) in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Therefore, these new discoveries add to evidence that medicinal wine and medicinal herbs were fairly common in Egypt.

Dr. Kandil added that, although he believes that medicinal wine isn’t common today (Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and intake of alcohol is forbidden in Islam), this may not remain the case: “They may become more common because of this article if it is developed commercially by a company in the functional beverage segment that is thinking of being a pioneer,” said Dr. Kandil.

Currently, the co-authors of the study are collaborating with Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center to reconstruct the ancient medicinal wine recipes, hoping to utilize their possible health benefits.5

According to Dr. Kandil, possible health benefits for the discovered wines include antimicrobial effects from thyme and rosemary, in addition to antioxidant benefits from rosemary through its rosmarinic acid. “Mint could have provided a calming effect on the digestive system,” said Dr. Kandil. “Senna provides laxative benefits. Coriander is an antimicrobial agent.”

This information can be useful for a variety of reasons: “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,” Dr. McGovern told National Geographic.5

—Kelly Saxton Lindner


  1. McGovern P, Mirzoian A, Hall G. Ancient Egyptian herbal wines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2009;106(18):7361–7366.

  2. 5,100 year old chemical evidence for ancient medicinal remedies—discovered in ancient Egyptian wine jars [press release]. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum; April 14, 2009.

  3. Viegas J. Herbal wines healed ancient Egyptians. Discovery News. April 14, 2009. Available at: http://dsc.dicoverycom/news/2009/04/14/egyptianwine-print.html. Accessed April 15, 2009.

  4. Todt R. Study: herbs added to 5,100-year-old Egyptian wine. Associate Press. April 13, 2009. Available at: 12133696. Accessed April 14, 2009.

  5. Handwerk B. Scorpion King’s wines—Egypt’s Oldest—spiked with meds. National Geographic News. April 13, 2009. Available at: http://news. Accessed April 28, 2009.