It was an unusual finding: tetracycline, a modern antibiotic, detected in the bones of mummies recovered from what is now southern Egypt. "Imagine if you're unwrapping a mummy, and all of a sudden, you see a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses on it," bio-anthropologist George Armelagos said of the discovery. "We thought it was a product of modern technology." Initially, he set out to study osteoporosis of the ancient Nubians, whose civilization stood between 350 and 550 AD. Armelagos made the startling discovery when the bones fluoresced under an ultraviolet light source.
At first, Armelagos thought some kind of cross-contamination had occurred. How could 2000-year-old people be consuming an antibiotic invented in the last 60 years? This discovery was met with much skepticism from the scientific community. With the help of an outside laboratory, bone samples were dissolved and the tetracycline extracted from them, proving that the antibiotic was present at every level of the bone structure, and embedded into the osteons.
But where could the tetracycline be coming from? There were no pharmaceutical companies 2000 years ago. Tetracycline was first isolated from the Streptomyces bacteria, which secretes the compound to kill off competing bacteria in the surrounding soil. The researchers were able to trace the source of the tetracycline to grain stored underground in the presence of these bacteria, as was common during that time period. So the Nubians may have been consuming tetracycline accidentally, but humans ingest all kinds of things accidentally. Were the levels clinically significant?
As it turns out, when baked into bread, only minimal levels of tetracycline were expressed, but when that same grain was fermented into beer, the levels skyrocketed, as the Streptomyces had time to grow and compete with the other yeasts and bacteria. Armelagos' evidence suggests that beer was given as a medicine as well as for recreation, and that the levels of tetracycline were actually higher than commonly prescribed today!
Armelagos' graduate students succeeded in home-brewing a beer according to the Nubian recipe, which they described as "greenish, sour, but drinkable." You may wish to prescribe your patients the normal form of tetracycline instead!
Ancient Nubians Drank Antibiotic-Laced Beer - seeker.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.seeker.com/ancient-nubians-drank-antibiotic-laced-beer-1766072868.html
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