Posts Tagged ‘prehistoric’

Antibiotic beer, as drunk by the ancient Nubians

// September 8th, 2010 // 4 Comments » // Drugs, Recent Research

Image by Peter Trimming

Today’s schooner of science is literally science in a schooner. Plus it comes with a new career path – bioarcheologist, expert in ancient diets.

George Armelagos is the bioarcheologist in question, and he’d been studying the ancient Nubians who lived just south of ancient Egypt in present-day Sudan.

George was looking at some bones and found evidence that they had been exposed to tetracycline, an antibiotic. Tetracycline is absorbed into bone, and fluoresces green. It’s sometimes used to measure bone growth – take tetracycline at day 0, again at day 12, and at day 21 take a biopsy. The distance between the two green lines will show how far the bone grew in 12 days.

Anyhoo, tetracycline in bones from 350-550 AD is weird, seeing as we first invented antibiotics with the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Now we find out the ancient Nubians beat us to it, and as with all great ideas they came up with it over a beer.

The grain they used to ferment the beer contained streptomyces bacteria, which produces tetracycline as a kind of germ warfare. Like penicillin comes from a fungus, tetracycline is made by a bacteria. It’s a bad-ass antibacterial that can treat disease like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and pneumonia which are caused by bacteria. It can even kill Yersinia pestis cause of the black plague.

Were the ancient Nubians drinking it by accidental contamination, intentional medication, or did streptomyces bacteria just grew on the corpses?

To find out they needed (da dada dum!) a CHEMIST! This particular hero was Mark Nelson, who dissolved the bones in some hardcore hydrogen fluoride – “the most dangerous acid on the planet,” according to Mark. Woah. After showing the bones who was boss, Mark mass spec’d the shizz out of them and discovered a metric buttload of tetracycline, confirming that it was ingested and in high quantities.

The scientist duo concluded that this was a brew with a purpose – an antibiotic alcoholic. Even the bones from a four year old child contained a lot of tetracycline, perhaps he was given the antibacterial to cure a disease.

My question is, why are WE not taking our antibiotics in beer? That would be SO much better!

ResearchBlogging.orgNelson ML, Dinardo A, Hochberg J, & Armelagos GJ (2010). Brief communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350-550 CE. American journal of physical anthropology, 143 (1), 151-4 PMID: 20564518

Leviathan, the ancient marine predator discovered

// July 6th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

Deep in a desert in Peru palaeontologists were searching for a skull. Some years ago, teeth thought to belong to a new species of marine animal had been found, but they needed a head to identify it. Hunting in the richest area for ancient sea remains, luck eluded them until the very last day of their travel. Then they found…

Leviathan melvillei. Named after that most fearsome animal the white whale, likened to Leviathan in Herman Melville’s most excellent book Moby Dick. In the old Testament Leviathan was a sea demon, a guardian of the gates of hell. Other cultures thought a dragon or a crocodile, but in modern Hebrew the word means simply whale.

And what a whale is Leviathan.

With 30 cm long teeth it was a dangerous predator. It may have hunted medium-sized baleen whales, who have no teeth and live on plankton. It’s huge teeth would have inflicted deep bites, tearing the baleen whales into pieces. Leviathan lived some 12 million years ago, and looks similar to a modern day sperm whale.

One major difference between the fossil and modern sperm whales is Leviathan had teeth on both jaws. Modern sperm whales only have teeth on the lower jaw, and eat by sucking squid into their mouth. Killer whales are like the funsize version of Leviathan, with teeth on both jaws and violence towards seals. Watch the YouTube documentary to find out more.

They haven’t found the rest of the fossil, so they don’t know how large the whale was, but it was probably around the same size as the sperm whales of today. That’s really big! The largest animal that has ever lived is the blue whale that is still in the ocean now. There are theories that the blue whale is as big as things will ever get.

And so let us take a moment to think of mighty, mad Ahab. That crazy captain who lost his leg to a sperm whale. Wherever you are, Ahab, I be glad you never lived to see this day. The mighty Moby Dick who stole your sanity had but half the dental framework of legendary Leviathan.

Paper published in Nature. Hat tip to Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Update: The name Leviathan was already taken (whoops!) so it has now been renamed Livyatan melvillei, Livyatan being a Hebrew name for large marine monsters.






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