Ancient Nubian Antibiotic Beer

161128shabtiNo, that’s not not the name of my new band. It’s the answer to a mystery in the bones of ancient Nubians.

You see, strains of bacteria that live in the soil of Nubia—the middle region of the Nile, south of Egypt—naturally produce tetracycline, an antibiotic that the bacteria use to kill off competing bacteria. During the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the people of Nubia stored their grain underground and some of it got contaminated. The result was that the things they then made with that grain, like bread and beer, contained tetracycline. Eating and drinking these products gave the Nubians a dose of antibiotics, which probably helped them resist diseases and infections.

The traces of these antibiotics turned up in the bones of Nubian mummies. We don’t know to what extent the ancient Nubians were aware of the effect their beer was having on them. No one in the ancient world had the medical knowledge to understand antibiotics, but even without understanding causes, people can be very observant of effects. They may well have known that their beer helped keep them healthy, even if they didn’t know why.

Beer. It’s good for you.

Image: Ancient Egyptian shabti statuette of a woman making beer, photograph by yov dothan via Wikimedia (Currently Israel Museum, Jerusalem; c. 2000 BCE; painted wood)

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

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