Penicillin was officially discovered in 1928, but a new analysis of the bones of Nubian mummy remains has shown that the Nubians had discovered the art of making antibiotics 2000 years ago – specifically, tetracycline.
Nubia, south of Egypt, was located in what we now call Sudan. The Nubian people were very advanced; in fact one of the first astronomical devices was found dating from the same prehistoric time, much earlier than Stonehenge. As we see here, they had even more knowledge than we realized.
George Armelagos, one of the lead authors of the study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, says:
“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”
When Armelagos first found traces of tetracycline in mummies, back in the 1980s, other researchers thought it meant nothing more than either a contaminant or perhaps accidental growth of the antibiotic in particular batches. As he worked on it, he was joined by a pharmaceutical chemist, Mark Nelson, of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc. When Nelson heard about the original find, he suggested that Armelagos send him the bones to dissolve as he had the tools to extract the tetracycline.
The yellow film in the flask above shows tetracycline residue from dissolved bones
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.”
A 4-year-old boy’s skull and leg bone were full of tetracycline which suggested they were trying to cure an illness.
“The first of the modern day tetracyclines was discovered in 1948. It was given the name auereomycin, after the Latin word “aerous,” which means “containing gold.” “Streptomyces produce a golden colony of bacteria, and if it was floating on a batch of beer, it must have looked pretty impressive to ancient people who revered gold,” Nelson theorizes.
Armelagos and Nelson believe the art of fermenting antibiotics had been passed down from previous generations. Which then raises the question: how early had man learned how to use antibiotics, and what happened to that knowledge such that it was lost until 1928? This find brings more questions than answers and Armelagos is already working on them. Next he will be tackling how big the doses were. The sophisticated prehistoric Nubians may have been able to calculate different dosages for children and men or certain ailments vs. others. I for one look forward to his next find.