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Antibiotics in Africa 2000 years ago

In 2010 evidence was found in Africa that Human use of antibiotics began not 80 years ago, but nearly 2,000 years ago along the banks of the Nile River. Chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Sudanese mummies 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 evidence yet that antibiotics were previously discovered by humans before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928

This evidence was gathered from large amounts of tetracycline (Antibiotics) embedded in the bones of ancient African mummies. Tested from the ancient Sudanese population, which lived in the Nubian kingdom (present day Sudan) between 250 A.D. and 550 A.D.


Image 1. Ancient Nubian drawings at a royal burial ground not far from Jebel Barkal. (Carolyn Cole / LAT)

The evidence was first reported and published in Science in 1980 , It was met with alot of skepticism (Bassett et al 1980). In the new study in 2010, bone samples were dissolved and tetracycline was extracted from them, clearly showing that the antibiotic was deposited into and embedded within the bone, not a result of contamination from the environment.

The analyses showed that ancient Nubians were consuming large doses of tetracycline — more than is commonly prescribed today as a daily dose for controlling infections from bad acne. The team, including chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, reported their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Dr Nelson states “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 a mummy and suddenly it had Ray-Ban sunglasses on it, that’s what it was like with us.”


Image 2. The moon rises over the Meroe Pyramids, the third Nubian capital and royal burial ground of the Nubian Kingdom.

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.

Nelson was able to solve this problem by dissolving the bones in highly corrosive hydrogen flouride. He was able to clearly identify the amount and identity of the tetracycline in the bones. It was in all the bones, including those of a four-year-old child.

It is thought that the Nubians made the tetracycline in their beer. There is evidence they knew how to make it. 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.

There was so much Tetracycline found in their bones that it is near impossible that the tetracycline-laced beer was a fluke event.

The Nubians likely noticed the antibiotics cured them of bacterial infection. It may have had negative effects as well: If taken in too large quantities the antibiotic can also cause iron deficiency because it latches on to the iron in the body. The analyses showed that ancient Nubians were consuming large doses of tetracycline — more than is commonly prescribed today, consumption was consistent, and drinking started early. Analyses of the bones showed that babies got some tetracycline through their mother’s milk fermented grains may have been used as a weaning food.


Image 3. Everyone drank the antibiotic-laced beer often, starting as early as age two.

The discovery of antibiotics in the 20th century changed the course of human development, however knowledge of such chemical entities existed in civilisations of prehistory. Egypt and Nubia are just two of these civilisations. How many other things may we have missed. This evidence serves as another striking example of the achievements of pre-colonial Africa.


Bassett EJ, Keith MS, Armelagos GJ, Martin DL, Villanueva A. 1980. Tetracycline-labeled human bone from ancient Sudanese Nubia (A.D. 350). Science 209:1532–1534.

Mark L. Nelson, Andrew Dinardo,Jeffery Hochberg,3 and George J. Armelagos 2010. Brief Communication: Mass Spectroscopic Characterization of Tetracycline in the Skeletal Remains of an Ancient Population From Sudanese Nubia 350–550 CE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 143:151–154


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