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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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  • Not really, no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @05:37AM (#33433466) Journal

    Sometimes sick people got better after drinking beer.

    How is this any different than any historical herbal remedy? They didn't need to have any more knowledge of anti-biotics than natives eating mushrooms need know the shrooms contain psilocybin.

    Bacteria infected their grain, this resulted in anti-biotic beer which became a local herbal remedy or healing potion. No actual discovery of bacteria or idea WHY the remedy heals. Interesting but hardly 'astonishing'.

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

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @05:52AM (#33433510) Homepage Journal

    Or maybe they just liked beer.. I'm pretty sure most people consuming large doses of beer these days aren't doing it for the health benefits.

  • by digitig ( 1056110 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @05:56AM (#33433528)

    2: Since the reason their beer had antibiotics was due to a lucky coincidence of having soil laced with the antibiotic, did they really know about antibiotics or did they just think they had "magic beer" that cured illnesses.

    Perhaps you didn't understand the bit in the summary that referred to empirical knowledge and use of antibiotics?

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

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @05:56AM (#33433532) Journal

    quite possible, they could have been drowning their sick children in massive doses of beer to ease their suffering.

    In the Nubians defense, 'most people consuming large doses of beer these days' aren't consuming anti-biotic beer so they don't have the opportunity to drink it for the same health benefits. Besides that, anti-biotics can be ordered in pure forms now.

  • What surprises is me is the complete elitism of knowledge that shows its ugly head when an article like this pops up. "Oh they didn't have modern science so they must have been complete n00bs and were just drinking 'magic beer' that sometimes helped." This is completely regardless of the fact that this is already centuries after Plato and Hippocrates or any other ancient looks into philosophy and medicine.

    Could it possibly be, as you and the article suggest, that they had empirical knowledge of what they were doing? God forbid if that were true! /sarcasm

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

    by OeLeWaPpErKe ( 412765 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:41AM (#33433684) Homepage

    If you've ever been to Africa, you'll know this. The reason you drink only beer, no matter your objections and thoughts on the matter is that you're relatively sure it won't infect you with an illness. Drinking water from a pond in the jungle is Russian roulette. Drinking water offered by inhabitants of a village is asking for poison.

    Even today, in remote parts of Africa you drink either bottled water (which you check before you drink it), or beer. Nothing else. You just can't trust it.

    And let's not talk about the food.

  • by tpstigers ( 1075021 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @06:57AM (#33433754)
    Why do modern people think everyone in the past was stupid? Is it really so much of a stretch to believe that ancient people were capable of figuring out that consuming certain substances helped cure certain ailments? They managed to figure out monumental architecture - is it so hard to believe that they could do the math and realize that drinking beer helped them feel better under certain circumstances? The fact that ancient people didn't have access to the internet doesn't mean they were idiots.
  • by marcello_dl ( 667940 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:00AM (#33433764) Homepage Journal

    In fact Science is a protocol to make the most out of observations, but empirical knowledge is the superset of experimental knowledge. Science supersedes it but empirical knowledge works for humans and animals since the dawn of time.

    Besides, Science is about experimentation, publication, replication and validation of result, theories forming or being demolished because of such results.

    But now?

    We have NDAs, patents, trade secrets, corporate manipulation of the media,this is not the scientific process, this is a religion in disguise. "Believe our results".

    To the guy dissing herbs, the origin of the medicament is irrelevant all it matters is its efficiency. If penicillin can cure and amanita muscaria can kill, natural stuff can have dramatic effects on health, obviously.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:24AM (#33433842)

    > Why do modern people think everyone in the past was stupid?

    Maybe they are just assuming they were just like us.

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:30AM (#33433874)

    far in the future some asshole will stumble upon an almost entirely destroyed dvd of /. posts, will see yours and say "These people used some form of electronic medium to communicate. However, we, the self proclaimed clerisy insist that they didn't have any actual understanding of the technology they used, they simply used it to bitch about other people and yet were entirely ignorant of the underlying mechanisms that enabled their communication."

    The guy will be almost as much of a dick as you are. dick.

  • Re:What... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fey000 ( 1374173 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:31AM (#33433880)
    The average life expectancy we have today is significantly higher than it was back then. As such, it may well be that these Nubians never even experienced the consequences of liver damage outside a few extreme cases.
  • Re:Obligatory... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:40AM (#33433926) Journal

    If it was a linux distro, it would be spelled Gnubian or Kgnubian something similar while sporting a picture of some bearded goat thing playing ball with a penguin.

  • Re:Let's see (Score:3, Insightful)

    by delinear ( 991444 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @07:48AM (#33433968)
    Quite a lot of expectant mothers drink copious amounts of beer just prior to pregnancy, too.
  • Re:Let's see (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mar1boro ( 189737 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:09AM (#33434058) Homepage

    This means that you must consume lots of the drugs to be effective. This actually confirms that the Nubians knew more about the process then one might think.

    No. No it doesn't. No causality has been established. As of this moment, high levels of Tetracyclene mean one thing only: large quantities of Tetracyclene entered their bodies. That's it.

  • Re:Either that or (Score:3, Insightful)

    by foniksonik ( 573572 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:18AM (#33434092) Homepage Journal

    Question should be: "what other kinds of mold grow on the plants being fermented which were not selected for due to their dangerous effects?" such as the mold that has LSD in it.

    There are many possible combinations that would not be good, so actively selecting one which is = cultivation of medicine, not randomness.

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

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:34AM (#33434216) Homepage

    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.

    This reasoning is about as sound as "Of course marijuana is bad for you: it's illegal!"

    Until last year tobacco was not regulated by the FDA, and I'm pretty sure the active ingredient in it was known to be "potent enough to have an effect on your health" even way back in the dark ages of 2008. To say nothing of caffeine, which is not regulated by the FDA as a drug but as a food ingredient or dietary supplement... like an "herbal".

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

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @08:52AM (#33434376) Homepage

    Is someone asking you to be "impressed" or "astonished" by this? Try "interested" or "amused" (because it's beer). It's just anecdote about how early humans developed primitive medicine, stumbling by blind luck into something that they surely didn't understand, but modern science has confirmed as medically effective.

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

    by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:10AM (#33434502) Homepage

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

    That is empirical testing. The herbalists would have done better to stick to it. Unfortunately, they developed bogus theories.

    And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri.

    Well, no. Some of it is toxic.

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

    by Jeppe Salvesen ( 101622 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:37AM (#33434774)

    The question is then if there is a higher dose of antibiotics in the remains of those who died from disease than those who died from accidents and violence. If there is a higher concentration of antibiotics in the remains of those who died from disease, then this suggests they knew about the healing properties of their beer. After all, the body is better at defeating infections when sober than when you're hammered so not drinking beer while being ill would be a better choice had they not known of the medicinal properties of the beer.

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

    by asliarun ( 636603 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @09:44AM (#33434844)

    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."

    A lot of what you said is very true - herbal medicine in general is not as systematic or scientific as modern medicine.

    However, to make a blanket statement that all herbal medicine is hit-and-miss, voodoo magic, and unscientific is also distorting the truth, and based on ignorance of our past. Science is not the fiefdom of the Greco-Roman system we have been following in the last couple of hundred years. Systematic and scientific study has indeed been followed by many old cultures, albeit not to the level of sophistication that we currently follow. Nonetheless, you cannot just trash it completely.

    Look at what Sushruta [] used to do in India in 800BC for example.

    To quote the wikipedia article:

    "The Sushruta Samhita contains 184 chapters and description of 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, a detailed study on Anatomy, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources."

    Not just medicine, he has written extensively about surgery, especially plastic surgery, and some of his techniques and instruments are still being used today.

    He wasn't alone, you can also read about Charaka [].

    What I am basically trying to say is that the basic principles of science such as logic and experimental proof did not get magically invented a couple of hundred years ago. Most scientists in the old days were let down by a lack of infrastructure and lack of mature manufacturing processes, among other things. They were not let down because their approach was unscientific or unsystematic. Don't trash herbal medicine just because the active chemical ingredient of a herb has not been isolated (because of lack of chemical or process know-how). No system of medicine (even herbal medicine) can withstand the test of time if it was solely based on hit and trial or voodoo/magic, instead of being based on logic and method.

    To put it another way, should your great grandchild trash-talk and call you a scientific neanderthal just because you used to eat fruits, vegetables, and meat instead of ingesting (isolated) protein, carb, vitamin, and fibre tablets? Forget isolating nutrients from our food, we haven't even been able to properly bio-engineer the food that we eat. Imagine how barbaric it will feel to a person 500 years from now when they realize that our generation actually needed to slaughter animals for our nutritional intake. They'll probably look at us the way we look at cannibals.

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

    by sarkeizen ( 106737 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @10:23AM (#33435298) Journal
    Half the herbs on the shelf in GNC have peer reviewed double blind studies backing them which is really all the prescription drugs show.

    Shananagans on two counts:

    i) I think there is significant reason to doubt that you checked for studies with very much rigor.

    ii) Even it you did check for some. It's not necessarily the same as what prescription drugs are required to show. I've read a number of journal articles on herbal remedies and what I tend to see are small-n, poorly controlled, terrible endpoint design...I could go on. Now sure this may be my sampling but the point here is that while there may be "evidence" for some effects of some herbal compounds. That's not the same as saying most herbal compounds have equivalent evidence to the vast majority of FDA passed drugs.
  • Re:Not really, no (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tmosley ( 996283 ) on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @10:29AM (#33435374)
    So, people in the Iron Age didn't have steel because they didn't know what an iron atom was? I guess we don't have nuclear reactors because we don't fully understand the composition of matter, either.

    Hell, Alexander Fleming didn't discover penicillin because he didn't know the atomic structure.

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 01, 2010 @11:02AM (#33435890)

    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.

    I'm a long time brewer, and while you are right there is not enough alcohol in beer to kill all bacteria, there are no known pathogens that can survive in beer that will make you sick or have adverse effects. The worst that could happen is you get an infection and your beer will taste horrible, however drinking it wouldn't have any negative effect other than on your tastebuds. Plus alcohol isn't the only thing fighting pathogens, the water has to be boiled for about an hour, plus hops contain stuff to fight them too(too lazy to dig for the name of what it is in hops right now)

    I've heard this from a number of head brewers at various breweries I've toured(note most pro brewers go through a ton of science classes), but since this is SlashDot, here's a link to an acrticl by a profesor at the U of CA talking about beer science.

    Scroll down to the part where he talks about pathogens.

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