Antibiotic beer brewed 2000 years ago

There’s a fascinating science story just out, revealing that ancient Nubians two millennia ago were consuming large amounts of the antibiotic tetracycline most likely in the form of beer. Yet another reason beer is healthy! There are several sites running the story, but Wired has the most beer-centric version:

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.

“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.”

Armelagos, who specializes in reconstructing ancient diets, proposed that the Nubians made the tetracycline in their beer. There is evidence they knew how to make it, he says. Tetracycline is produced by a soil bacteria called streptomyces, which is how it was discovered by modern society in the 1940s. Streptomyces thrives in warm, arid regions such as that of ancient Nubia, and likely contaminated a batch of beer.

They must have known how to propagate the beer because they were doing it to make wine, Nelson says. There was also so much of it in their bones that it is near impossible that the tetracycline-laced beer was a fluke event.

To make sure that making the antibiotic beer was possible, Armelagos had his graduate students give it a try.

“What they were making wasn’t like a Bud Light but a cereal gruel,” Armelagos said. “My students said that it was ‘not bad,’ but it is like a sour porridge substance. The ancient people would have drained the liquid off and also eaten the gruel.”

(They would have drained the liquid off? Then what part are they calling “beer”?)

In addition to having discovered the healthy benefits of their beer, they would have been drinking it for the other health reason all societies took up with beer: it was safer than the water.

At any rate, I wonder how long it will be before everyone’s favorite brewer of ancient beers takes a crack at this?

One Response to Antibiotic beer brewed 2000 years ago

  1. Jon,

    This is extremely interesting to me! I was just reading and responding to an article earlier today discussing how through out much of history in many places through out Europe people drank beer as it was a way to drink something safe. Their water was far from safe to drink where as the fermentation process of beer made it safe. I believe the everyday drink was called “little beer” or something along those lines and was meant for kids, women, adults etc.

    I find it fascinating that beer has had so many uses through our human history, dates back so damn far (all the way back towards around 9000 BC) and has meant so much more to cultures than simply a good tasting beverage with fun effects.

    Ilya