For reasons passing understanding, apart from anti-alcohol propaganda, beer is forbidden from advertising its many recognized health benefits. For people against alcohol, saying beer is good for you, or at least isn’t bad for you (in moderation), is apparently the same as saying “drink up.” And for goodness sake, we’d never want to tell people to do something that might be good for their health, especially if a small minority can’t handle the truth … er, the beer.
But despite our peculiar inability to be reasonable regarding alcohol, beer and health have been inextricably linked since the beginning of civilization when drinking beer was safer than the water. But there may have been at least one more medicinal use of beer, at least in the variety brewed by ancient Nubians, “an ethnic group originally from northern Sudan, and southern Egypt now inhabiting East Africa and some parts of Northeast Africa.” And for a time, they even ruled over ancient Egypt, beginning in the 25th Dynasty.
Conventional wisdom has it that the use of antibiotics is a modern invention, thought to be no more than eighty years old, but archeologists have found in the bones of ancient Nubian skeletons traces of tetracycline, “a broad-spectrum polyketide antibiotic produced by the Streptomyces genus of Actinobacteria, indicated for use against many bacterial infections.” This suggests that the use of antibiotics may be 2,000 years older than previously thought.
From Discovery News’ coverage:
Some of the first people to use antibiotics, according to the research, may have lived along the shores of the Nile in Sudanese Nubia, which spans the border of modern Egypt and Sudan.
“Given the amount of tetracycline there, they had to know what they were doing,” said co-author George Armelagos, a biological anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “They may not have known what tetracycline was, but they certainly knew something was making them feel better.”
Armelagos was part of a group of anthropologists that excavated the mummies in 1963. His original goal was to study osteoporosis in the Nubians, who lived between about 350 and 550 A.D. But while looking through a microscope at samples of the ancient bone under ultraviolet light, he saw what looked like tetracycline — an antibiotic that was not officially patented in modern times until 1950.
And Physorg.com adds this, from Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals:
“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 diets. In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550. 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.
Their results were published in the September issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Here’s the abstract:
Histological evidence of tetracycline use has been reported in an ancient X-Group population (350–550 CE) from Sudanese Nubia (Bassett et al., 1980). When bone samples were examined by fluorescent microscopy under UV light at 490 Å yellow–green fluorophore deposition bands, similar to those produced by tetracycline, were observed, suggesting significant exposure of the population to the antibiotic. These reports were met skeptically with claims that the fluorescence was the result of postmortem taphonomic infiltration of bacteria and fungi. Herein, we report the acid extraction and mass spectroscopic characterization of the antibiotic tetracycline from these samples. The bone samples were demineralized in anhydrous hydrogen fluoride which dissolved the bone-complexed tetracycline, followed by isolation by solid phase extraction on reverse-phase media. Chemical characterization by high pressure liquid chromatography mass-spectroscopic procedures showed that the retention times and mass spectra of the bone extract were identical to tetracycline when treated similarly. These results indicate that a natural product tetracycline was detectable within the sampled bone and was converted to the acid-stable form, anhydrotetracycline, with a mass + H of 427.1 amu. Our findings show that the bone sampled is labeled by the antibiotic tetracycline, and that the NAX population ingested and were exposed to tetracycline-containing materials in their dietary regime.
As they discovered, the most likely source of their “dietary regime” that included the antibiotic was Nubian beer. Back in 2000, Armelagos figured out it was most likely the beer, and he published his findings in the magazine Natural History, in an articled entitled Take Two Beers and Call Me in 1,600 Years.
But back to Discovery News:
His team’s first report about the finding, bolstered by even more evidence and published in Science in 1980, was met with lots of skepticism. For the new study, he got help dissolving bone samples and extracting tetracycline from them, clearly showing that the antibiotic was deposited into and embedded within the bone, not a result of contamination from the environment.
The analyses also showed that ancient Nubians were consuming large doses of tetracycline — more than is commonly prescribed today as a daily dose for controlling infections from bad acne. The team, including chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, reported their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
They were also able to trace the antibiotic to its source: Grain that was contaminated with a type of mold-like bacteria called Streptomyces. Common in soil, Strep bacteria produce tetracycline antibiotics to kill off other, competing bacteria.
Grains that are stored underground can easily become moldy with Streptomyces contamination, though these bacteria would only produce small amounts of tetracycline on their own when left to sit or baked into bread. Only when people fermented the grain would tetracycline production explode. Nubians both ate the fermented grains as gruel and used it to make beer.
The scientists are working now to figure out exactly how much tetracycline Nubians were getting, but it appears that doses were high that consumption was consistent, and that drinking started early. Analyses of the bones showed that babies got some tetracycline through their mother’s milk.
Then, between ages two and six, there was a big spike in antibiotics deposited in the bone, Armelagos said, suggesting that fermented grains were used as a weaning food.
Today, most beer is pasteurized to kill Strep and other bacteria, so there should be no antibiotics in the ale you order at a bar, said Dennis Vangerven, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
But Armelagos has challenged his students to home-brew beer like the Nubians did, including the addition of Strep bacteria. The resulting brew contains tetracycline, tastes sour but drinkable, and gives off a greenish hue.
Maybe that could be used for St. Patrick’s Day? As for the antibiotics, they’re not even the only medicinal uses of beer in ancient in times, according to Armelagos:
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.
Pretty fascinating stuff. It’s too bad you can’t get antibiotics today by the case … or keg.