Ancient beer brewed to include antibiotic

EMORY (US)—A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer.

The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

The research, led by Emory University anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is detailed in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” Armelagos says. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”

Armelagos is a bioarcheologist and an expert on prehistoric and ancient diets. In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550, populations that left no written record. The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.

Armelagos and his fellow researchers later tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline.

A key question was whether only occasional batches of the ancient beer contained tetracycline, which would indicate accidental contamination with the bacteria.

Nelson, a leading expert in tetracycline and other antibiotics, became interested in the project after hearing Armelagos speak at a conference. “I told him to send me some mummy bones, because I had the tools and the expertise to extract the tetracycline,” Nelson says.

“It’s a nasty and dangerous process. I had to dissolve the bones in hydrogen fluoride, the most dangerous acid on the planet.”

The results stunned Nelson. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” he says. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”

Even the tibia and skull belonging to a 4-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness, Nelson says.

The first of the modern day tetracyclines was discovered in 1948. It was given the name auereomycin, after the Latin word “aerous,” which means containing gold.
“Streptomyces produce a golden colony of bacteria, and if it was floating on a batch of beer, it must have look pretty impressive to ancient people who revered gold,” Nelson theorizes.

The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments, Armelagos says, adding that the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.

The chemical confirmation of tetracycline in ancient bones is not the end of the story for Armelagos. He remains enthused after more than three decades on the project.

“This opens up a whole new area of research,” he says. “Now we’re going to compare the amount of tetracycline in the bones, and bone formation over time, to determine the dosage that the ancient Nubians were getting.”

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chat9 Comments


  1. purnama

    Now we’re going to compare

  2. Bill

    This is truly fascinating. More and more science is proving that the old civilizations had a lot of the technology we assume has only been around for 100 years or so, especially where medicine is concerned.

    We will never know the extent of the knowledge the ancients possessed. There really is nothing new under the sun. All we have accomplished in modern times that has never been accomplished before is the near destruction of our species and the poisoning of the planet. What a shame.

  3. Erik

    Very cool stuff. We need a comprehensive resource that is constantly updated cataloging the history of medicine and disease.

  4. Don

    Yes, there is a lot to learn from ancient cultures. A lot of it is lost/nearly lost knowledge. They knew an awful lot, where as now we are being poisoned and lied to by big corporations in the name of profit.

  5. Dayne

    Well, my guess is Nubians were some ugly dudes. In today’s world, we don’t use tetracyclines in children. They permanently color your teeth brown.

  6. Dr. O'

    Actually, the teeth often turn green, not brown. At one time I was told not to mention this to patients because they might get upset. I told them green is better than dead.

  7. William F.Glaser

    “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” — Ben Franklin

  8. AW

    If the general beer drinking population was taking therapeutically active doses of tetracycline all the time, wouldn’t it result in antibiotic resistance? If evidence were presented that beer was selectively brewed for its effect that would be better evidence that they knew what they were doing rather than dosing everyone all the time.

    All the time dosing might also indicate that tetracycline producing bugs were an accident of less that sterile technique that did not impact the desire qualities of the brew, or had the benefit of killing off competing microbes and allowed the yeast to work better. It was likely that the microbe community in the fermentation process either came from the brewing environment. Like some wineries/breweries today allow for open fermentation because they rely on the wild populations built up from decades or centuries of fermentation in the same place. Or, through inoculations from past successful batches (think sourdough starter), rather than careful selections of different strains of microbes added for specific qualities.

  9. mace

    Nubians did have written records,it was just that at the end of kush(350 a.d.) to 550 a.d. there was less of it.

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