Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"Antibiotic" beer?

National Geographic has an article on how ancient Nubians wound up with tetracycline in their bones.

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.

He goes on to cross-reference their neighbors, the Egyptians, who had a written language (I've no idea why the Nubians wouldn't--they borrowed so much else from the Egyptians, it would be crazy not to learn to write. Maybe they just didn't like writing on stone, or didn't have stuff as durable as papyrus)

Armelagos said the Egyptians used beer as a gum-disease treatment, a dressing for wounds, and even an anal fumiganta 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.

They don't mention Egyptian bones, and I suspect the Egyptian beer was not similarly innoculated, so I suspect their pharmaceutical uses of beer related more to the alcohol content.

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