One of the constant assumptions in the field of antibiotic resistance is that the massive exposure of bacteria to antibiotics, and the evolution of resistance to these antibiotics, didn’t occur until after the widespread introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics less than a century ago. But ScienceDaily reports that we might have to rethink this:
A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer….
In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550, populations that left no written record. The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.
Armelagos and his fellow researchers later tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. A key question was whether only occasional batches of the ancient beer contained tetracycline, which would indicate accidental contamination with the bacteria.
It doesn’t appear to be accidental contamination of the occasional beer culture:
The results stunned Nelson. “The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” he says. “I’m convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug.”
…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, Nelson says….
The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments, Armelagos says, adding that the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.
One wonders what would have happened if we had not lost this knowledge. Would we have been able to cure diseases like typhoid and the black plague, or would antibiotic resistance be incredibly widespread and we would have never developed all the antibiotics we have today?