Rather than depending on the newest pharmaceutical drugs, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been getting historical in their hunt for superior medicine. They are using chemical tests to rediscover the herbs used medicinally in ancient Egypt. By studying the residue of ingredients added to wine in ancient clay jars, these researchers hope to unlock some of the medical understanding held by physicians thousands of years ago.
The Egyptians loved to write things down, and the ingredients to sought-after remedies were recorded in hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, modern Egyptologists have struggled to translate some of the specific ingredients included in these remedies. Residue from a 5,000 year old jar showed that Egyptians made use of coriander, senna, germander, balm, and savory, among other herbs. A 1,500-year-old jar included compounds that researchers believe included rosemary.
These studies stem from more than just historical curiosity. The Penn researchers hope to find out if the Egyptians had some clue about real cures for serious illnesses – cures that work. After all, the Egyptians built the pyramids; they weren't complete fools. Researchers at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center hope to find possible "new" ways to battle cancer through the use of remedies and herbs known by the ancients.
"I think people should be open-minded" about ancient remedies, said Wafik S. El-Deiry, a Penn professor of medicine, genetics, and pharmacology, "because there may be hidden treasures."
At the same time, the Eygptians also had some real doozies. They worshipped the dung beetle, and coincidentally included a lot of animal and human waste in some remedy recipes. While the Egyptians did have some medicines that appeared to work – for instance, fennel was used to cure indigestion – they also had some remedies that could have killed their patients.
As medical doctor S.E. Massengill stated:
"The early Egyptian physicians made considerable use of drugs. Their drugs were of the kind usually found in early civilizations; a few effective remedies lost in a mass of substances of purely superstitious origin. They used opium, squill, and other vegetable substances, but also excrement and urine. It is said that the urine of a faithful wife was with them effective in the treatment of sore eyes."
Pig dung, donkey dung, lizard dung, dried children's excrement were all included in the ingredients of various cures. Blood from a variety of animals was also used, and the Egyptians seemed to be pleased with creating puss (which is the result of an infection.)
It is noteworthy that Moses was raised by the royal family of Egypt, and afterwards wrote the five books of the Torah. Yet, while Moses' works include a great deal of information on how to deal with illnesses, his works do not draw on Egyptian medical practices. He also avoids the harmful practices of the other nations in the area. In fact, the first five books of the Bible are far more sanitary and medically sound than the medical practices of the ancient Egyptians and, if followed, would have protected the ancient Israelites from spreading many harmful diseases.
For instance, while the Egyptians used dung and human feces as remedies, Deuteronomy 23:13 instructs the people to dig holes outside the camp to relieve themselves, and to cover it up afterwards. The Israelites were told not to touch animals that had died of themselves or were torn by wild beasts (Lev 22:8). The sons of Aaron were considered unclean if they touched a dead human or a creeping thing or if they had a skin disease or a running sore (Lev 22:4-5). The Israelites were instructed not to eat a variety of animals that were "unclean" (Lev. 11), which indeed were not as safe to eat as "clean" animals like sheep and cattle. Moses gave instructions for dealing with people who had potentially communicable skin diseases, including quarantine (Lev 13:45-46), and even described how to deal with the clothing of diseased people (Lev 13:47-59).
The ancient Egyptians had a great deal of knowledge based on centuries of learning – and centuries of superstition. Moses, on the other hand, was taught by God Himself, who already knew about the microorganisms that cause disease, and how to best protect His people from them. The researchers at the University of Penn might turn their attention to the Scriptures. The Bible may not hide the secret to the cure for cancer. But... then again... it might.