Well, they did, but they didn’t know it.
Among all the other things, it looks like the ancient Egyptian people invented antibiotics, along with their cousins the Nubians. They fermented a kind of thick pasty porridge that they called ‘beer’ which was highly nutritious and non-intoxicating that had naturally high levels of the antibiotic tetracycline. They used it as a food to cure illnesses. What’s the recipe?
The Medicinal Beer of Ancient Egypt
As Christianity possesses its sacramental wine, so too does the Egyptian religion largely focus on a sacred beverage, beer. Numerous verses in the ancient Egyptian scriptures such as the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead discuss the holy sacrament of beer, in the context of the deceased transitioning to the divine afterlife. For example, in the Pyramid Texts – the oldest of Egyptian religious writings, dating to c. 2350 BC – there are over 40 references to beer, such as (210):
“What people receive when they have been buried, their thousand of bread and their thousand of beer, is from the offering table of Foremost of Westerners.”
“Westerners” are the deceased themselves, who are said to have passed on with the sunset, in the west.
In the Coffin Texts (late 3rd millennium BC), we find reference to a “beer god,” so important was beer to the ancient Egyptians. His equivalent in Greek mythology was evidently Dionysus, a “god of cereals” as well as of the vine. Indeed, according to one myth, Dionysus is the son of Persephone, which makes him also the grandson of Demeter, goddess of the earth and grain. Another deity associated with beer in Egypt was the goddess Hathor, who along with the “offficial goddess of beer,” Tjenenet, shared this characteristic with her Sumerian counterpart Ninkasi. It is interesting to note that the Sumerian word for beer is “ka,” while “ka” in the Egyptian religion refers to the “force of conscious life.”
Beer as staple
While it is tempting to assume that the obsession with beer in the ancient Egyptian funerary literature – which reflected the abundant use of the beverage in Egyptian daily life on Earth – has to do with intoxication in the face of unhappiness and death, there might actually be a very practical reason for some of this passion. In religion and mythology studies, it is often supposed that much religion is founded upon irrational beliefs without any basis in reality; however, when one studies religious and mythological concepts dating back thousands of years, there is frequently a very logical and rational reason for perceiving these ideas. For example, in delving back through religious history, we encounter many concepts rooted in science, such as those revolving around nature worship and what is called “astrotheology,” which deals with the celestial bodies, i.e., the sun, moon, planets, earth, stars and constellations.
In this regard, a modern discovery seems to confirm that, for Egyptians, the word “beer” meant much more than the frothy intoxicant we envision and enjoy today. Instead of being a nice light lager, pilsner or even a more substantial porter or stout, “beer” in ancient Egypt evidently referred in some areas to a thicker and relatively non-intoxicating “sour porridge.” This thick porridge or “bread beer” would therefore possess more nutrition than the average beer as we know it.
The manufacture of this beer-bread is related in mythology to have been taught by the Egyptian equivalent of Dionysus, the god Osiris:
According to legend, Osiris taught ancient Egyptians the art of brewing beer, [which] was traditionally but not exclusively a female activity through which women could earn a little extra money (or bartered goods) for themselves and their families. The main ingredient in the beer was bread made from a rich yeasty dough possibly including malt. The bread was lightly baked and crumbled into small pieces before being strained through a sieve with water. Flavour was added in the form of dates and the mixture was fermented in a large vat and then stored in large jars.
Moreover, in the discovery in Southern Egypt/Nubia that has stunned scholars and scientists, some of this ancient African beer-porridge apparently was loaded with the broad-spectrum antibiotic tetracycline, a fact that may explain in significant part its reverence in the ancient texts, which are focused on the afterlife, preservation and resurrection. Says Wynne Parry of LiveScience:
The ancient Egyptian practice of brewing beer, documented through archeology and ancient art, is believed to have been a long-standing practice in the region at the time. Brewing beer using fermentation mixtures containing Streptomyces, which excrete tetracycline, appeared to be the only way these people could have produced the quantity of the antibiotic necessary to explain the fluorescent [tetracycline] signal [found in their bones]. So they likely intentionally added the bacteria to their fermenting brews.
It may well be that the ancient Egyptians and Nubians observed the astonishing effects of the tetracycline-loaded beer on people with bacterial illnesses and decided that this beverage/food must be one of the gods’ great gifts to humanity. Indeed, we know that beer was valued throughout the Middle East as a medicine and sacred substance, as related by Michael M. Homan, in “Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?”:
Nobody disputes the importance of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where it was the national drink. Beer was used to pay laborers and the fathers of brides. It was used medicinally for stomach ailments, coughs, constipation; one ancient Egyptian prescription calls for a beer enema. Hammurabi’s Law Code regulates the price and strength of beer. Many ancient temples had their own brewers. One text from Mari indicates the possible use of beer to induce a prophetic state.
In addition to the relatively non-intoxicating beverage being discussed here, it appears that there were other stronger brews, as the word for “beer” in these lands often came to be equivalent to “drunkenness,” as further related by Homan.
Ancient African Cocktail: Beer and a Shot of Antibiotic
About 1,500 years before the modern world discovered the antibiotic tetracycline, North Africans were fermenting and consuming it, probably for most of their lives, according to a chemical analysis of the bones of people who lived along the Nile.
The ancient human remains were recovered near the Sudanese-Egyptian border, where species of tetracycline-producing bacteria inhabit the soil. This region, in Northeastern Africa, was once known as Nubia. Much of it is was flooded when the Nile River was dammed.
The practice of brewing beer was widespread in the region, including in Ancient Egypt to the north, and the researchers think the Nubians fermented Streptomyces or related species with their grain to brew a thick, sour beer spiked with tetracycline. And everyone, from about 2 years old and up, consumed it.
The researchers suspect the Nubians added the bacteria knowing its benefits, though they likely didn’t realize the compounds were antibiotics.
“It wasn’t a one-time event, because it was all throughout their bones,”
said Mark Nelson, senior director of chemistry at Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and an expert in tetracyclines. He performed the chemical analysis on bones from several individuals, which revealed significant amounts of tetracycline.
In the 1980’s, archaeologist George Armelagos lead a team that unearthed 2,000 year old Nubian bones, where traces of the antibiotic tetracycline was found. New research shows that the bones contain high concentrations of the antibiotic, consistent with modern humans.
Antibiotics for the use of medicinal purposes is a relatively modern discovery. So how could bones from thousands of years ago show evidence that people were ingesting them on a regular basis?
It’s now being revealed that the antibiotic, which is produced naturally from soil bacteria, was being consumed via their beer.
Streptomyces, the bacteria which tetracycline spawns, was most likely created during the brewing process of the Egyptian beer. The ancient Nubians made this beer by a crude process of fermenting bread. Flour, created from germinated grains, was made into bread and then quickly cooked at high heat as to retain a raw center. The end product, fermented in vats, was a thick, chunky type brew with an ABV of around 3%.
Tetracycline was previously thought to be discovered in the late 40’s, and is commonly used today to treat acne, pneumonia and other bacterial infections. Archaeologist George Armelagos likened the discovery to
“unwrapping an Egyptian mummy and seeing a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses strapped to the head”.