Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wait. Cleopatra's Neighbors used Antibiotics?

[Addendum: A couple of friends have reminded me that concoctions with antibacterial and antibiotic properties existed in numerous ancient cultures (though I really could have done without that Roquefort reference, PhDiva! *shudders*).  What I found particularly exciting about this report was that it involved Nubian culture and we know relatively little about the Nubians...]

An article so stunning I had to read it several times almost went right by me. An Emory University anthropologist has proven that the ancient Nubians, neighbors to the south of Egypt, used tetracycline .

In other words, they used antibiotics to treat sick patients. Amazing! Now some of you may be asking, “And the connection with Cleopatra is….?” You’ll see. Just bear with me.
The Nubians, Egypt's neighbors to the south, conquered and ruled
 Egypt in the 25th Dynasty. But as this artwork of Egypt's enemies
from the 20th Dynasty shows, Nubia was often at odds with its northern
neighbor.  The above depicts Egypt's traditional enemies (from L to R),
Nubians. a Philistine, an Amorite, a Syrian, and a Hittite. 

The fact that any ancient culture used antibiotics is stunning, to say the least. According to the science blog,, “A chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming tetracycline, most likely in their beer.”

George Armelagos, the Emory anthropologist who headed this study, said: “We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine. But it’s…increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents…they knew what they were doing.”

I won’t go into details as to how they determined this (it involved mummy bones and a heavy-duty blender. ‘Nuff said, right?). However, this is big people. Big!

They even found that the bones of a four-year-old saturated with the antibiotic in what must have been an attempt to heal the child from whatever infection doomed it.

The chemist in the study, Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is also convinced the Nubians were harnessing the medicinal powers of tetracycline through beer. See, it turns out that the soil in Nubia contained the bacteria that produces tetracycline. So when the Nubians brewed their beer from the wheat or barley grown in that soil, the fermentation process burbled up the antibiotic.

More analysis will be done to determine how the Nubians were dosing their patients, but again, this is staggering to me.

Why? Because we know so little about the Nubians in general! We are getting a glimpse into their advanced culture through science. No one has been able to fully decode the Nubian Meroetic alphabet, leaving us in the dark about Nubian culture.

A couple of things about the article irritated me, though. The bone samples are taken from ACE 350-550, which the anthropologist identified as pre-historic, implying it occurred before recorded history. I am sure he meant to say “ancient” because this era is by no means pre-historic. In fact, when someone finally decodes the Nubian language, we will have plenty of records to study, including, possibly, the recipe for their awesome antibiotic beer.

Also the blog used an image of Egyptians from the 12th Dynasty baking and brewing grain.  It’s subtle, but it confuses the point—it was the Nubians, and not the Egyptians, who were using tetracycline. Why not post art from ancient Nubia (we have plenty) or even from the 25th Dynasty when the Nubians ruled Egypt?

The Nubians ruled Egypt about 500 years before Cleopatra’s dynasty came into power (see, I told you I would eventually bring it back to her). Egypt and Nubia always had a strong trading relationship. It’s likely, then, that Cleopatra had many dealings with Nubian rulers and/or diplomats. Did she make deals with them to import their medicinal beer? Probably. Did she invite Nubian physicians to consult with her scientists at the Great Library of Alexandria? Most likely.

What was a meeting between the powerful queen of Egypt and the powerful queen of Nubia like? Oh, to be a fly on that wall!

I have always been curious about the Nubians but, thanks to these findings, I am now intensely curious. I want to know more! And I want people to know more about them too.



Elizabeth O. Dulemba said...

WOW. It is BIG and fascinating!! wow.

Vicki Leon, said...

Hey Vic, gREAT post! I've written a fair amount on the Nubians/the Meroe culture---most recently in a long guest post on Allie Greenwald's blog, Hist fic chick on july 7. Also an entry in my Working IX to V book on Queen (Candace) Amanirenas. Marvelous stuff, but had not heard about the tetracylcine beer! is it/was it possible to o.d. on the stuff?

Unknown said...

I love it when History and Science come together - what a wonderful post Vicky! Well done!!

Also, for those that haven't seen it - Vicky's amazing interview is now up at Three Pipe Problem.

Thank you for taking the time to write such wonderfully detailed answers Vicky!

3PP Interview with Vicky Alvear Shecter

Kind Regards
H Niyazi