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Got an Infection Drink a BeerWe credit modern medicine with amazing discoveries that are improving our health. But once in a while we’re humbled by what ancient cultures knew about healing.  

In this case, we’re talking about antibiotics. And the scientist who had always gotten credit for discovering this wonder drug in the 1920s was Alexander Fleming.

But we were wrong!

The Nubian people began using antibiotics sixteen hundred years ago.

Excavated bones of ancient Nubians, who lived along the Egyptian-Sudanese border, prove that they regularly ingested the antibiotic, tetracycline. The first hint of this came from a study in 1980 when a bioarcheologist discovered the bones glowed under UV light.

That’s because tetracycline fluoresces with a unique yellow-greenish color.

The antibiotic tends to bind with the calcium and phosphorus in our bones, so that even small amounts stay for many years.

But few people believed the 1980 report, skeptical that the Nubians could have stumbled onto such a modern marvel. Yet soon, another scientist provided more proof by extracting the antibiotic from the bones and showed that it could still kill bacteria.

The best evidence was just published. In the new study, the bone samples were dissolved in acid and analyzed by mass spectrometry, which can identify unknown compounds.

This technique proved the bones contained tetracycline and that exposure was over long periods of time.

So, where and how did the ancient Nubians consume this antibiotic? Well, tetracycline producing bacteria called Streptomyces naturally occurs in the soil there. Researchers believe the Nubians, knowing its therapeutic effects, used it along with their grain to produce beer.

Most Nubians, starting at two years old, drank the brew. Researchers believe it would have cleared up bacterial infections and symptoms like diarrhea.

So, will this change our textbooks? I don’t know. But I’ll be editing my lectures to include this fascinating piece of history.

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"Antibiotic" Beer Gave Ancient Africans Health Buzz
The National Geographic offers information about the intentional use of beer containing tetracycline by the Nubians.
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Ancient Nubians Drank Antibiotic-Laced Beer
A group of people who lived nearly 2,000 years ago in Sudanese Nubia took doses of tetracycline -- through their beer.
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Ancient Brew Masters Tapped Antibiotic Secrets
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.
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Brief communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350-550 CE
The latest publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, by Nelson ML, Dinardo A, Hochberg J, and Armelagos GJ.
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Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work
Antibiotics are over prescribed and commonly used inappropriately contributing to the dramatic rise in bacteria that are resistant to one or more of them. To learn more about antibiotics and how they should be used, check out this article at the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) web site.
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