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!
Nelson 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