Most history texts tell us that antibiotic use began in the 20th century. 1928, to be exact. A recent discovery may toss all that in the crapper, though. It seems that ancient people living along the Nile river in Sudanese Nubia were taking Tetracycline on a regular basis. They brewed it into their beer. They did it on purpose, too.
Side and top view of an ancient beer jar.
Now, we aren’t talking Budweiser or Sam Adams here. This beer would probably be unrecognizable to people today. Beer in the ancient world was a thick, sweet, low alcohol mash that was brewed from specially made loaves of bread. Ancient people–especially ancient Egyptians–wouldn’t have understood the joke “Beer. It’s not just for breakfast any more” because it was. A chunk of bread and a jug of beer was a regular meal for the average Joehotep when he took his lunch break from sailing a 68 foot granite obelisk down to Thebes.
This Nubian beer was even different from the normal brew, though. It was thick, yes, but it was likely somewhat sour. Made from grain that was allowed to mold, then fermented which allowed the contamination of the mold-like bacteria Streptomyces to really take hold. The grain was then baked into the special bread, broken up and brewed into beer. A gruel of the fermented grain was apparently also used as a weaning food for infants.
No one knows when the discovery was made that this sour beer made the drinker feel better; chances are the first batch was made in hard times by someone who couldn’t stand to toss out all that grain–even if it was a little moldy. Ironically, the modern day discovery of the ancient tonic was also unintentional: the researchers were looking for something else entirely.
Back in 1963, George Armelagos (Now a biological anthropologist with Emory University in Atlanta), was part of the team who excavated the mummies. His original intent was to study osteoporosis in the specific population, however, in 1975, when he looked at the bones through a microscope under ultraviolet light, he saw traces of Tetracycline, an antibiotic not discovered until 1948. He chalked it up to modern cross-contamination of the remains. When a grad student noted that Tetracycline is a naturally derived drug, the hmmmmmm factor took over, even to the point of challenging his students to use ancient brewing methods to reproduce the beer. It worked. The result was thick, sour, and contained measurable amounts of Tetracycline.
The studied remains date from between 350 to 550 A.D., a period that spans the end of Egypt’s Late Period, all of the Greco-Roman Period and well into the Byzantine Period. Unfortunately well after the reign of Ramesses II (1303 – 1279 B.C.E.) which was during the New Kingdom period and the time frame in which my Sitehuti and Nefer-Djenou-Bastet stories are set. Very unfortunate for Ramesses, especially, since an examination of his mummified remains in the Cairo Museum suggested he may well have died from an abscessed tooth. Still, it’s awfully tempting to have one of the Nubian Medjay know about this nasty greenish beer his grandmother used to brew up when the kids were sick.