Anti-cancer properties…in ancient beer?!

Biomolecular archaeological evidence examining ancient Egyptian wine jars (circa 3150 BC) found that ancient beer may have had potent anti-cancer agents:

“New biomolecular archaeological evidence backed up by increasingly sophisticated scientific testing techniques are uncovering medicinal remedies discovered, tested, and sometimes lost, throughout millennia of human history—herbs, tree resins, and other organic materials dispensed by ancient fermented beverages like wine and beer. Did those ancient “remedies” work-and if so, is there something we can learn—or re-learn—from our ancestors to help sick people today?

The answer is now a definitive yes, thanks to early positive results from laboratory testing conducted by researchers at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory run by archaeochemist and ancient alcohol expert Patrick E. McGovern, PhD, aka Dr. Pat.

Book cover for Uncorking the Past

Over the past two years, researchers working on a unique joint project, “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery,” have been testing compounds found in ancient fermented beverages from China and Egypt for their anti-cancer properties. Several compounds—specifically luteolin from sage and ursolic acid from thyme and other herbs attested in ancient Egyptian wine jars, ca 3150 BCE, and artemisinin and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, and isoscopolein from wormwood species (Artemisia), which laced an ancient Chinese rice wine, ca 1050 BCE—showed promising and positive test tube activity against lung and colon cancers.

I first “discovered” Dr. McGovern when I finally figured out that all the cool tomb analyses of funerary beverages I read about were the work of the same man.  Of course, tombs aren’t all he’s done.  In a long and colorful career, Dr. McGovern has contributed significantly to the history of brewing, including identifying the world’s oldest known beer (Jiahu, China). And now he’s on contract with Dogfish Head Brewing, consulting on their Ancient Ales line.  The University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Lab is where the ancient remnants of drink remaining on countless tiny fragments, potsherds, cauldrons etc. have been carefully analyzed, cross-checked, and tested in ways I wouldn’t have imagined possible.  Among other things, they identify ingredients to ancient beverages.

What was in the giant cauldron lowered into King Tut’s tomb just before it was sealed? What beverage was grand enough that King Midas (or possibly his father) was buried with more than a hundred gallons of it?  This is the lab that answers those questions.   I suspect they’re rather byproducts of more serious and worthy concerns, like figuring out anti-cancer agents, but they’ve made a lab groupie out of me!

Read more about Dr. McGovern and  U. Penn Museum’ s Biomolecular Archaeology Lab here.

You can read some of Dr. McGovern’s books on ancient brewing:  Ancient Wines, Origins and Ancient History of Wine, and Uncorking the Past (Amazon links).

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