Autumn 2010: Of Note

Microscope image of skeleton, false color

Green fluorescence in Nubian skeletons indicated tetracycline-labeled bone, the first clue that the ancients were producing the antibiotic.

Courtesy George Armelagos

Microbrew Meds

By Carol Clark

Call it the first happy hour with health benefits.

A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline—most likely in their beer. The finding is strong evidence that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly two thousand years ago.

The research, by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Ancient brewmasters may have purposely made their beer medicinal by lacing it with grain contaminated with antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria. “We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents,” Armelagos says. “Given the amount of tetracycline there, they had to know what they were doing. They may not have known what tetracycline was, but they certainly knew something was making them feel better.” Armelagos, a bioarcheologist and expert on prehistoric and ancient diets, led the team that 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.

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