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"Antibiotic" Beer Gave Ancient Africans Health Buzz

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 16, 2005
 
Humans have been downing beer for millennia. In certain instances, some drinkers got an extra dose of medicine, according to an analysis of Nubian bones from Sudan in North Africa.

George Armelagos is an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. For more than two decades, he and his colleagues have studied bones dated to between A.D. 350 and 550 from Nubia, an ancient kingdom south of ancient Egypt along the Nile River.

The bones, the researchers say, contain traces of the antibiotic tetracycline. Today tetracycline is used to treat ailments ranging from acne flare-ups to urinary-tract infections. But the antibiotic only came into commercial use half a century ago. So how did tetracycline get into the Nubian bones?

Armelagos and his team say they found an answer in ancient beer. The brew was made from grain contaminated with the bacteria streptomycedes, which produces tetracycline.

The ancient Nubians, according to Armelagos, stored their grain in mud bins. A soil bacteria, streptomycedes is ubiquitous in arid climates like Sudan's.

"We looked at how the grain was used then and came across a recipe for beer," Armelagos said. The Nubians would make dough with the grain, bake it briefly at a hot temperature, and then use it to make beer.

"We're not talking about Heineken or Bud Light. This was a thick gruel, sort of a sour cereal," he said.

Feel-Good Drink

According to Armelagos, the Nubians would drink the gruel and probably allowed their children to eat what was left at the bottom of the vat. Traces of tetracycline have been found in more than 90 percent of the bones the team examined, including those of 24-month-old infants.

But did the Nubians know they were drinking beer contaminated with tetracycline?

"They probably realized the alcohol made them feel better, but there is a whole series of Egyptian pharmacopoeias [medicine books] that talk about things beer can help with," Armelagos said. (The ancient Nubians had no written language that discussed daily life but lived just south of the Egyptians, who did.)

Armelagos said the Egyptians used beer as a gum-disease treatment, a dressing for wounds, and even an anal fumigant—a vaporborne pesticide to treat diseases of the anus. The anthropologist also believes the tetracycline protected the Nubians from bone infections, as all the bones he examined are infection free.

Charlie Bamforth, a professor of biochemistry and brewing science at the University of California, Davis, said that beer has been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years and that the health benefits of beer were likely known, even if not scientifically explained, in ancient times.

"They must have consumed it because it was rather tastier than the grain from which it was derived. They would have noticed people fared better by consuming this product than they were just consuming the grain itself," he said.

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