08 March 2011

Ancient Nubians consumed tetracycline-laced beer

From eScienceCommons at Emory University:
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 anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology...

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...

“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.


  1. This is certainly interesting. But, considering the side effects of large doses of tetracycline (diarrhea, stomach cramps, sensitivity to sunlight) it's hard to understand why they would want it in their beer. Assuming they regularly consumed the beer, they would also risk killing off beneficial gut bacteria.

    As a bacteriologist, I'm wondering how much alcohol was in their beer--alcohol is a very good bactericide.

    Love your blog!

  2. Arlene you mention a number of issues which need research. The woman who actually worked on the tetracycline problem (not Armelagos but one of his students), Margaret Keith, asked several of these questions in 1979-1980. Unfortunately, not much else has happened since. This current press release mentions results which were investigated in 2000. However, in the published paper itself, the study cannot answer questions of amount of beer; how often; and why (as prophylaxis is a bit of a stretch). I always wondered about yeast infections (for women) but no one has looked at that question.

    What is clear from Keith's published work is that tet was present, was deposited in vivo, and in sufficient doses to label bone cells.a


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...