Alexander Fleming was not the first to discover antibiotics

September 9, 2010

The Nubians beat him to it:

Chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Sudanese Nubians who lived nearly 2000 years ago shows they were ingesting the antibiotic tetracycline on a regular basis, likely from a special brew of beer. The find is the strongest yet that antibiotics were previously discovered by humans before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928.


Scientists have suspected this population was ingesting tetracycline since they first noticed a florescent yellow-green appearance of the bones under ultraviolet light, indicative of tetracycline.

“When we reported that in 1981, it was met with a lot of skepticism,” said anthropologist George Armelagos of Emory University, who made the original discovery and is co-author of this new study. “If you were unwrapping an Egyptian mummy and suddenly it had Ray-Ban sunglasses on it, that’s what it was like with us.”

Tetracycline latches on to calcium and gets deposited in bones, which is how it can be detected it in fossils. The ultraviolet light technique said little about how much tetracycline there was in the bone, and it was hard to convince others it wasn’t simply a produced of microbial contamination of the bones, or a one-time beer event.


Armelagos, who specializes in reconstructing ancient diets, proposed that the Nubians made the tetracycline in their beer. There is evidence they knew how to make it, he says. Tetracycline is produced by a soil bacteria called streptomyces, which is how it was discovered by modern society in the 1940s. Streptomyces thrives in warm, arid regions such as that of ancient Nubia, and likely contaminated a batch of beer.


Streptomyces produces a golden-colored bacterial colony that would have floated on top of the beer and likely encouraged its propagation. Gold was revered by the ancient cultures.

Full story at Wired Science.


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