Ancient Nubians Made Antibiotic Beer
by Jess McNally
Chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Sudanese Nubians who lived nearly 2000 years ago shows they were ingesting the antibiotic tetracycline on a regular basis, likely from a special brew of beer. The find is the strongest yet that antibiotics were previously discovered by humans before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928.
“I’m going to ask Alexander Fleming to hand back his Nobel Prize,” joked chemist Mark Nelson, who works on developing new tetracyclines at Paratek Pharmaceuticals and is lead author of the paper published June in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Nelson found large amounts of tetracycline in the bones tested from the ancient population, which lived in the Nubian kingdom (present day Sudan) between 250 A.D. and 550 A.D. and left no written record.
“The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” Nelson said in a press release August 30. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”
“This discovery will provide a whole new framework for understanding the relationship between microbes and antibiotics,” said anthropologist Dennis Van Gerven of University of Colorado at Boulder. “There might have been other populations that were also doing the same thing, anywhere that there were these microbes. This is going to drive other scientists to start this search, and that is incredibly important.”
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