In 2005, anthropologist George Armelagos with Emory University announced that the ancient African Nubian people brewed a beer which acted as an antibiotic. At the time, the news was intriguing as it would indicate that humans discovered antibiotics almost 2,000 years earlier than originally believed.
Looking at Nubian bones, Armelagos found traces of tetracycline — a broad-spectrum antibiotic — in Nubian bones from around 350 A.D.. Further research suggested to Armelagos that the people obtained the substance by brewing and drinking an alcoholic gruel similar to beer.
The problem was determining if the Nubians were deliberately brewing the beer for it’s beneficial properties or if it was accidental contaminated with the bacteria. If that were the case, only a few batches of beer might contain the bacteria, and would also suggest that the Nubians were unaware of the beer’s medicinal properties. Recent evidence from those same bones may now indicate that the Nubians knew exactly what they were doing.
Researcher Mark Nelson, a medicinal chemist with Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., offered his assistance to Armelagos. Nelson had the equipment and expertise to determine exactly how much tetracycline were in the Nubian bones, and could thus determine how much they had consumed. The results were surprising. From eScience Commons:
“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.”
Though Nubia’s northern neighbor Egypt left much in the way of written records, Nubia had no written language. As such, we can only hypothesize based on the evidence at hand. It is worth noting, however, that Egyptians also brewed beer and used it to cure ailments.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to throw back a few cold ones. For my health.
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