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Hunt for ancient medicine secrets

February 1, 2007
Egypt Tomb
Researchers will examine plant extracts found in ancient tombs

British scientists are helping uncover the secrets of medicines used by the ancient Egyptians 5,000 years ago.

A University of Manchester team is travelling to Sinai, Egypt, to shed more light on how the Egyptians formed their ideas on medicines.

They will compare modern plant species in the region with those used by tribes, such as the Bedouin, and plant remains found in ancient tombs.

The project is being carried out by the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology.

Researcher Dr Ryan Metcalf told BBC News: "Ancient Egyptians' medicine was remarkably advanced for its time. A lot of things they used we still use today.

"They certainly had some quite advanced herbal medicines and probably knew about cannabis as well for pain relief."

Biodiversity project

Dr Metcalf said the Egyptians used natural remedies, such as chewing willow bark - which contains properties similar to aspirin - and honey on open wounds to kill bacteria.

The focus of the project will be trying to find out where they got their ideas from.

"We know that the ancient Egyptians had extensive trade routes and it is entirely possible that both medicinal plants and the knowledge to use them effectively were traded between regions and countries," Dr Metcalf said.

"By comparing the prescriptions in the medical papyri to the medicinal plant use of the indigenous Bedouin people we hope to determine the origins of Pharaonic medicine."

Papyri, the forerunner of modern paper, is sheets of laminated material made from thin strips of the Cyprus Papyrus plant.

Researchers will work with the Egyptian Medicinal Plant Conservation Project in St Katherine's, Sinai, which is working to preserve the biodiversity of the region through co-operation with local Bedouin.

They will be able to supply the Manchester team with seeds and information that covers the Sinai peninsula.