Ancient Nubians made and drank tetracycline laced beer making them the first to discover the powerful effects of antibiotics against bacterial infections.
Tetracycline is an antibiotic that is made from Streptomyces bacteria (a soil type of bacteria), "discovered" by Benjamin Minge Duggar in 1948.
When Tetracycline is used it binds to calcium and so is deposited in the bones and can be visualised under ultraviolet light.
George Armelagos, a professor of anthropology, was studying bones (modern bones) and found that under ultraviolet light, a fluorescent yellow-green band appeared on the bones.
This spectacle is known to be evidence of exposure to tetracycline among modern people.
A few years later, a graduate student of Armelagos saw the same fluorescent band on bones from the ancient Nubians. That's when Armelagos realized he had seen what could be evidence of ancient antibiotic use.
"My heart stopped," said Armelagos. "It's like if you were unwrapping a mummy and you saw Ray-Ban sunglasses."
Initial reports of ancient tetracycline use were met with scepticism and it was suggested that the tetracycline in the bones had been produced as the result of deterioration by soil bacteria and fungi - post mortem.
In order to prove the presence of the antibiotic prior to death, a separate set of Nubian bones (Researchers chose to test bones in an excellent state of preservation, possessing no visual evidence of bacterial or fungal contamination either on the surface or internally) were retested with the an further aim of showing the concentrations of the antibiotic proved and pointed to deliberate ingestion.
This was achieved by extracting and isolating the bone-complexed tetracycline and then chemically characterising it using high pressure liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectroscopy.
The concentration of tetracycline detected in the bone samples suggests that these mixtures were produced deliberately using active culture or previous fermentation broth. For example, the tibia and skull belonging to a four-year-old were found to be saturated with tetracycline, suggesting that they may have been giving high doses to the child to try to cure an illness.
As a final test To ensure that making of antibiotic beer was possible at time, Armelagos and his students attempted their own beer. According to Armelagos "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."
It was found Streptomyces produces a golden-colored bacterial colony that would have floated on top of the beer and likely encouraged its propagation.
Gold was revered by the ancient cultures futher validating that the antibiotic's presence in the brew was intentional.
The researchers think that this ancient Nubian population was skilled in the science of fermentation and that they could have produced gruels or beer fermentations containing Streptomyces or other bacterial species that imparted pharmacological effects.
Armelagos hopes this find might also help explain why animals have been found with antibiotic resistance in Northern Africa where there is no previous evidence of antibiotics being used
It is now accepted that the ancient Nubian population was skilled in the science of fermentation and that they could have produced gruels or beer fermentations containing Streptomyces or other bacterial species that imparted pharmacological effects.
When, how and why the antibiotic beer making disappeared remains a mystery however it is not the first technology to disappear with the disappearance of cultures. Researchers are now continuing to look for the antibiotic in the bones of different cultures.