An analysis of bones of ancient Nubian people made in 2010 revealed the presence of tetracycline, an antibiotic that is also used in our modern times for treating bacterial infections. The bones specimens were nearly 2,000 years old (of people who lived in the Nubian kingdom circa 350 AD), and thus the study yet again hinted at how antibiotics was (possibly) familiar to ancient populations before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. And the interesting part is – the Nubians probably took in tetracycline through their special beer concoctions that were more akin to sour porridge.
The initial discovery of tetracycline presence in bones (made way back in 1981) was facilitated by the identification of a florescent yellow-green coloration on the ancient remains under ultra-violet light. But these initial finds were met with skepticism – as noted by anthropologist George Armelagos of Emory University, who took part in that analysis and also co-authored this 2010 study. It should however be noted that the skepticism was not targeted towards the authenticity of the earlier study, but rather advocated the presence of tetracycline as a mere coincidence, due to possible microbial contamination of the bones or the contamination of the beer (as a fluke event).
But this time around, the scientists made sure to gauge the actual levels of tetracycline in the bones (by using hydrogen flouride acid) so as to ‘test’ the conjecture of coincidence. To their surprise, they found that the tetracycline levels were uniform in all the bones studied, including that of a four-year old child. In essence, such homogeneous levels of antibiotics found in ancient human remains can’t just be dismissed as a mere coincidence.
Armelagos further expanded upon the study by making use of his expertise in reconstructing ancient diets. And according to him, there is strong evidence that the Nubians exactly knew that their beer concoctions made from grain were laced with tetracycline. Now in historical terms, the first batch of beer was possibly contaminated by streptomyces, a soil bacteria that produces tetracycline and also thrives in arid conditions such as Nubia (the land encompassing present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt). But the Nubians over time must have noticed how the ‘accidental’ tetracycline antibiotic cured them of various bacterial ailments. So they devised their ingenious ways to propagate and brew this particular variety of beer and consumed them as a part of their diet.
It should also be noted that streptomyces can produce a golden-colored bacterial colony on the top of the beer, and this particular hue might have enticed the Nubians to consume more of this special ‘antibiotic’ beer (since gold was venerated by many ancient cultures). But unfortunately, as with many historical traditions of observed science, this specific art of brewing the tetracycline beer was probably lost to time. And lastly, if we stretch the ambit a bit, the profusion of streptomyces in these African regions might also explain the antibiotic resistance showcased by the native fauna.
The study was originally published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.