When Patrick McGovern dons his Royal Purple latex gloves, the "Doctor Is In." But this doctor isn't working with live bodies; his "patients" are pottery sherds from ancient China, Egypt, Lebanon and even Honduras.
Unlike traditional archaeologists who study the sherds themselves for what they can tell us of past civilizations, McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, is looking for evidence of organic material in these remnants of jars, goblets and bowls.
"Most of what we are as humans is organic," McGovern says. "Our bodies, our clothing, dyes, wood houses, furniture. So the more information we can get from the organic side, the more we find out about how our ancestors developed and why we are the way we are today."
Biomolecular archaeology is the scientific analysis of ancient organic remains, and McGovern is one of its busiest investigators. Applying increasingly sophisticated techniques like mass spectrometry and liquid gas chromatography to sticky yellow and red residues on these ancient sherds, McGovern and his colleagues have established the earliest evidence of Royal Purple dye — hence the color of the latex gloves — going back to the early Bronze Age, 1300-1200 B.C.
They have also identified the earliest alcoholic beverage in the world, dating back to about 7000 B.C. from a site in China's Yellow River valley called Jiahu. It was what would today be called an "extreme beverage."
"When we first discovered it was a combination of barley beer, hawthorn fruit, grape wine and honey mead, we were kind of shocked," McGovern says. "Now everybody sort of takes it for granted that you mix all these things together." (For those who might want a taste of this ancient beverage, Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., actually produced Chateau Jiahu made from the original ingredients. A bottle sits in McGovern's office draped with a Gold Medal from the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.)
McGovern, who's been dubbed an Indiana Jones of ancient potables and is the author of Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, thinks alcoholic beverages have gotten a bad rap over the centuries. "There's a lot of negative press about alcohol," McGovern says. "In the Bible, there are verses that say don't over drink, but there are others that say a little wine for the stomach's sake is fine."
Meanwhile, other archaeologists of the potable attribute the rise of farming to the pursuit of suds. Most recently, Brian Hayden of Canada's Simon Fraser University suggests that the desire to have something potable at ancient feasts was a prime driver of cereal cultivation, in itself a keystone to modern societies. "It's not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation," Hayden told LiveScience's Charles Q. Choi, "it's this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies."
Biomolecular archaeology can perhaps help redress the balance. "By doing these studies we are actually uncovering a part of human history that maybe hasn't been well explained in the past and has a lot to do with the way we've developed biologically and culturally," he says.
His current focus is on what he calls "archaeological oncology" or "digging for drug discovery." It's a natural segue for McGovern. "Well, alcohol dissolves these different compounds of plants. As a fermented beverage, the botanicals can then be ingested easily or applied to the skin."
Working with the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center, McGovern and his colleagues have uncovered the earliest chemical evidence of wine with organic medicinal additives.
Testing carried out on residues inside a jar from the tomb of one of the first pharaohs, Scorpion I, around 3150 B.C. revealed that the wine had been laced with herbs such as coriander, mint, sage, as well as pine resin and figs. "This showed us that ancient people were looking around in their environments for different herbal and other botanical substances that could be dissolved into alcoholic beverages and administered that way," McGovern says.
Other tests on a jar with residues from an ancient Chinese rice wine turned out to have artemisinin. "Artemisinin is very powerful. It's from a wormwood, Artemisia annua," McGovern says. "It has a very long history going back in traditional Chinese medicine right to the first recipe for a medicinal prescription that's known — maybe in 170 B.C. or so. And our sample comes from 1,000 years before that. It suggests then that people already knew about these plants that are in the wormwood or mugwort family and were using it for different purposes."
Do these particular compounds have potential in modern therapies?
McGovern answers a definite "yes," as he and his co-authors wrote in the July 2010 issue of the International Journal of Oncology. (A PDF of their paper is here. ) An extensive series of in vitro tests on artemisinin showed some success in inhibiting lung and colon cancers.
The next step is in vivo studies with mice and then finally clinical studies. McGovern and his lab are working with the Abramson Cancer Center and University of Pennsylvania Medical Center on a grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue this whole line of research.
McGovern and his co-authors point to quinine and salicylic acid as notable examples of a traditional, natural remedy becoming an effective modern drug. Quinine, from the bark of a South American tree, was known as an anti-malarial medication by native Peruvians before Western science harnessed it, while the pain-relieving benefits of the bark of the willow tree were known to ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Mesopotamians before its active ingredient became the wonder drug aspirin.
"There are still a lot of unanswered questions," McGovern says. "But that's part of the process. That's what makes archaeology important, really. If you went to Mars and you had remnants of some ancient civilization there, you'd try to figure out who these creatures were. We're talking about actually uncovering what makes us human."