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Biotech Education Medicine Idle Science

Ancient Nubians Drank Antibiotic-Laced Beer 249

eldavojohn writes "A new analysis of millennia old mummy bones (abstract; full article is paywalled) shows high concentrations of tetracycline, which indicates empirical knowledge and use of antibiotics — most likely consumed in beer. The researchers traced the source of the antibiotics to the soil bacteria streptomyces present in the grain used to ferment the beer. Astonishingly enough, 'Even the tibia and skull belonging to a 4-year-old were full of tetracycline, suggesting that they were giving high doses to the child to try and cure him of illness.' The extent of saturation in the bones leads the scientists to assert that the population regularly consumed tetracycline antibiotics knowing that it would cure certain sicknesses."
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Ancient Nubians Drank Antibiotic-Laced Beer

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  • Re:Not really, no (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @05:56AM (#33433530)

    Ya this kinda sounds like herbal medicine BS in reverse. Rather than saying "People used herbs to cure illness so these herbs will cure you!" form of modern luddism this is kind of a reverse claim of forced sophistication "These people's remedy had anti-biotics so clearly they know about anti-biotics and did it on purpose!"

    I doubt there was empirical testing going on here. As the parent said, the beer sometimes helped people get better so they used it. This is like any other herbal remedy. Once we got better at all this and started testing, we found that sometimes herbal remedies were on the money. People used willow bark as an analgesic and fever reducer and sure as shit, one of the ingredients works great and lead to aspirin. Others have some minor benefits, sometimes it is questionable if it is statistically significant but the seem to help in some things. Others were just placebo, they don't do shit.

    None of this was know, hence why there's a great mixture.

    I like what Dara O' Briain has to say about it: "Oh herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years. Indeed it has, and then we tested it all and the stuff that worked became -medicine-. And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri. So knock yourselves out."

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:12AM (#33433582)

    There is also the minor consideration that drinking "pure" water would kill you (cholera, etc) and the alcohol in the beer killed the bacteria up front so kids drinking beer was not unusual

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:5, Informative)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:26AM (#33433632) Journal

    I wouldn't go as far with herb bashing as you (you seem to be implying willow bark is the only herb with a better than minor effect). Half the herbs on the shelf in GNC have peer reviewed double blind studies backing them which is really all the prescription drugs show. The effects or many are significant enough they need to be considered right alongside prescription meds for contraindications.

    None of that is to say that there is any sort of manufacturing oversight, claims testing (particularly in the diet and erectile dysfunction areas) or that a natural random soup of chemicals is somehow automatically safer than an intelligently purpose crafted solution. But there ARE many effective herbal remedies and some that seem to be more effective than prescription solutions (marijuana is far more effective than comparable prescription medications in not one but numerous areas). Another example is fish oil, like marijuana there are many physicians recommending fish oil over FDA approved supplements.

    A lot of people have a bogus idea about herbal testing. They think because no testing is required that none is performed. Or they believe some odd myth that none of these substances have been shown effective in testing. Or that a single molecule is always responsible for the effects. There is less money to be made herbal remedies and less control of claims. As a result there are fewer studies into their effects. Just the same there have been many studies (though far less than of prescription meds) and they OFTEN show benefits vs placebo not rarely.

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:53AM (#33433734)

    I doubt there was empirical testing going on here. As the parent said, the beer sometimes helped people get better so they used it.

    Isn't that empirical by definition?

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:5, Informative)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:10AM (#33433796) Journal

    Citation for what exactly? I didn't say anything that isn't widely known and easily findable with a simple google search. My examples can also be verified with simple searching. Of course my statements regarding herbs and contraindications are easy enough to find in the PDR. If you have trouble distinguishing noise from signal then try walking into a GNC and picking up a bottle then taking it to the counter.

    GNC regularly distributes a large compendium of what, if any, studies have been conducted on the herbs in the supplements they carry or their (suspected) active ingredients. They only have basics, summary of conclusions, basic type of study (sample size, single or double blind, etc). If you want more detail you need to get more detailed with the question. GNC should be able to provide you with enough information to find the full text of any individual study yourself.

    Of course your results at GNC are going to vary with the competence of the person at the counter. If you get an incompetent they will probably let you grab the book and search yourself.

    I think a lot of the myths are supported with broad negative conclusions drawn from properly narrow studies. For instance a study on Ginko Biloba came out recently which showed that it wasn't effective at restoring memory function to the elderly who had already lost function. Previous studies showed that Ginko enhanced memory function in adults (without control for memory loss). These are completely different things but people immediately jumped on the Ginko is debunked now train.

    Note: I'm not actually saying that Ginko is effective. I don't use any drugs (herbal or prescription) outside those in a carefully controlled diet unless I have an immediate medical need with risks that override the crapshoot that comes with haphazardly tossing chemicals into the delicate and poorly understood chemical balance that is my body.

  • by glebovitz ( 202712 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:29AM (#33433870) Journal

    Wasn't the discover of penicillin similar to this empirical discovery? Someone (Fleming) accidentally noticed that bacteria didn't grow around penicillin mold decided that this could work inside the body. As the time penicillin was discovered, we had little knowledge of how it actually worked.

    The difference between the Nubians and modern researchers is peer review. Fleming originally thought that penicillin was not useful to treat illness because it was quickly secreted by the body and thus reducing its effectiveness. Based on his published work, other scientists were able to advance the science and increase its effectiveness as a treatment.

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:4, Informative)

    by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:49AM (#33433970)

    No, it's the alcohol content and relatively low PH (usually in the 4-5 range) that makes beer so unfriendly for pathogens. There are even styles of beer like Berliner Weisse [] that are not traditionally boiled but are still far safer to drink than water of unknown quality.

  • Re:Either that or (Score:5, Informative)

    by teridon ( 139550 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:03AM (#33434028) Homepage
    The full article notes that simple contamination wouldn't have generated enough tetracycline to match what they detected.

    The extent of the [osteon] labeling suggests that the population received tetracycline during osteon mineralization, which occurs during periods of ~80 days. This finding contradicts the notion that the osteons were labeled by a one time event of bacterial contamination of grains or foodstuffs. [...]In contrast, surface inoculation of cracked and water-treated grains would produce tetracycline, but in low yields compared with liquid fermentation

    So, the population must have cultured this brew to generate enough tetracycline. Whether it was deliberate (because they knew it had health benefits) or just a happy accident that they kept using the right culture is unanswered.

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:4, Informative)

    by JasterBobaMereel ( 1102861 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:07AM (#33434048)

    Beer : contains alcohol - which kills many water borne pathogens, is made by boiling water, which kills most of the rest

    Medieval Europe and colonial North America drank large amounts of "Small Beer" Low alcohol beer, instead of water for precisely this reason, it was simply but very effectively abiotic

    All the Nubian's added to this was that they stumbled across an ingredient that made it anti-biotic as well...

    In the Ancient Near-East (Sumeria/Babylon etc) they drank Mead - Honey beer that is also anti-biotic ....

  • by JasterBobaMereel ( 1102861 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:14AM (#33434082)

    Science - If you do this it does this, Because....

    Empirical - If you do this it does that, it doesn't matter why

    Chewing willow bark can ease toothache, but most of the Willow bark is unnecessary it's just the salicylic acid that does the job ...

  • Re:What... (Score:3, Informative)

    by JasterBobaMereel ( 1102861 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:26AM (#33434162)

    The beer most people drank had a very low alcohol content, and getting drunk in public was frowned upon even then ....

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:5, Informative)

    by dargaud ( 518470 ) <slashdot2@gdarga[ ]net ['ud.' in gap]> on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:55AM (#33434384) Homepage
    You are wrong in attributing the drinkability of beer to alcohol: beer doesn't contain enough alcohol to kill most pathogens (2 to 8% in traditional beers). It does so thanks to competition with yeast. You have many germs in your brew when you start it, but if all goes well only yeast grows and eliminates the competition. Sometimes a brew can go bad where the yeast is eliminated by other germs, but then it's rather easy to tell: it doesn't smell, looks or taste like beer, so you don't drink it. With water you can't tell.
  • Re:Not really, no (Score:3, Informative)

    by NotBornYesterday ( 1093817 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:57AM (#33434404) Journal
    The basic process goes like this: Heat h2o until good and hot, but not boiling (about 150 deg f.), mix in grains, let sit a hour or 2 or 3, drain resulting liquid off the spent grains, boil liquid, cool it, pitch yeast, allow to ferment.

    Initial boiling kills anything in the water used to make the beer, the alcohol from fermentation helps prevent subsequent infection from most other microorganisms. Other more herbal ingredients (hops, for instance) can add other antimicrobial properties. There is a period of time after boiling and before the yeast has established itself when other organisms could infect the beer.

    That being said, technically speaking, you can make beer without boiling it.
  • Re:Not really, no (Score:2, Informative)

    by moeluv ( 1785142 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:20AM (#33434590)
    Actually most of the reason for a lack of pathogens in beer is that it is boiled for a long time. Most recipes I use call for at least an hour long boil. The yeast and bacteria can live together and function, there may still even be some alcohol in the batch, but quite often if there is an infection it will be the bacteria who win out and ruin the beer.If your beer is infected it's because of poor sanitation. This hasn't happened to any of mine so far but I keep my equipment clean.
  • Re:Not really, no (Score:3, Informative)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:25AM (#33434638) Journal

    "The bottom line is this: If a substance is potent enough to have an effect on your health, it's a drug, and is subject to regulation by the FDA."

    Incorrect. This has nothing to do with effectiveness or strength. The 'loophole' is the FDA's own guidelines which state that any traditional remedy with a long established documented history or safe use is exempt from regulation.

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:3, Informative)

    by gotpaint32 ( 728082 ) * on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:26AM (#33434652) Journal
    Counter to what you say, I would venture to say caffeine is better regulated than most the herbal garbage out there. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 limits the authority of the FDA in regards to dietary supplements. Its scary but they have more authority over your chocolate milk than your multivitamin. And if for some reason one of these supplements turn out to actually have efficacy then chances are they will be locked down just look at ephedra. From: [] FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" foods and drug products (prescription and Over-the-Counter). Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.* Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading.
  • Re:Not really, no (Score:4, Informative)

    by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:35AM (#33434742)

    You drop a pathogen into a solution that's 2%-8% alcohol with a PH around 4-5 that's had most of its sugars and oxygen consumed and tell me how it does. Alcohol isn't the whole story but it's a big part of it. The yeast more or less have a scorched earth policy towards the unfermented beer. They use aerobic respiration as long as there is oxygen available so they can multiply. When there is no more oxygen, they'll resort to anaerobic respiration and eat up all of the sugars and leave behind alcohol and CO2. When that is done, they'll go dormant for a while but if left in the brew too long will even resort to autolysis and start eating each other. They consume almost anything and everything that can be consumed and leave their environment quite inhospitable afterwards to anything but bacteria like lactobacillus or less picky yeast strains like brettanomyces. Even infected beer is generally safe to drink because of the type of infection that would have to be present to survive the harsh post-fermentation environment.

  • Re:Not really, no (Score:3, Informative)

    by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @12:19PM (#33437044) Homepage Journal

    Wort becomes beer. You can't reuse it any more than you can reuse eggs to make multiple omelets.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @01:17PM (#33437950)

    What's a Nubian?

    Some sparse details on them:

    They still exist as a distinct culture in southern Egypt and Sudan. Nubian is also a term that is used to mean someone black in ancient times alluding to their standing as an advanced civilization in Africa.

    A famous singer is Rasha, based in Spain. I think her music is awesome.

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