Ancient pottery reveals the first evidence of prehistoric honey hunting in West Africa 3,500 years ago

Image of Nok terracotta figurines. Credit: Goethe University

A team of scientists, led by the Bristol University, along with colleagues at Goethe University in Frankfurt, found the first evidence of an ancient honey hunt, encased in fragments of prehistoric West African pottery, dating back around 3,500 years.

Bees are an iconic species, being the most important pollinator of food crops in the world. Bee products, including beeswax, honey and pollen, used for both food and medicinal purposes, support livelihoods and provide sources of income for local communities in much of the region. Africa, thanks to both beekeeping and wild harvesting.

Today, honey is collected from wild bee nests in many African countries. In the tropical rainforest of West Africa, hunting for wild honey, found in natural hollows in tree trunks and under thick branches, is a common subsistence activity.

It is not known how long humans have been exploiting bee products. Honey would certainly have been a rare source of sweetener for ancient people and was probably in great demand. However, there is very little evidence of ancient human exploitation of the bee, except for Paleolithic rock art which shows bees and honeycombs, covering the period 40,000 to 8,000 ago. years, the majority of whom are in Africa.

Historical and ethnographic literature from across Africa also suggests that bee products, honey and larvae, were important both as a source of food and in the manufacture of honey-based beverages, such as beer and wine. .

Excavated Nok Ships

The excavated Nok vessels are cleaned and photographed at the Janjala research station, pictured in the photo: Dr Gabriele Franke, Goethe University. Credit: Peter Breunig

The Bristol team was performing a chemical analysis of more than 450 prehistoric shards of pottery from the Nok culture of central Nigeria to investigate the foods they cooked in their pots. The Nok people are known for their remarkable large-scale terracotta figurines and their earliest production of iron in West Africa, around the first millennium BC. The acidic soils at Nok archaeological sites meant that organic remains such as animal bones and plants did not survive very well, so what the Nok people ate was a mystery.

Much to the team’s surprise, their findings, published today in the journal Nature Communication, revealed that about a third of the pottery vessels used by the ancient Nok people were used to process or store beeswax. The presence of beeswax in ancient pottery is identified through a complex series of lipids, fats, oils and waxes from the natural world. Beeswax is probably present as a result of processing (melting) the wax combs by gentle heating, leading to its absorption into the walls of the container, or, alternatively, beeswax is believed to act as a substitute for cooking or storing the honey itself.

Honey is often an important food source for hunter-gatherers and there are several groups in Africa, such as the Efe foragers of the Ituri forest in eastern Zaire, who have historically relied on honey. as the main source of food, collecting all parts of the hive, including honey, pollen and bee larvae, from tree hollows that can be up to 30 m above the ground, using smoke to distract stinging bees.

Honey may also have been used as a preservative to store other products. Among the Okiek people of Kenya, who depend on trapping and hunting a wide variety of game, smoked meat is preserved with honey and can be stored for up to three years. A number of Nok jars contained chemical evidence for the presence of both beeswax and meat products.

In addition to using honey as a food source, it may have been used to make honey-based beverages, wine, beer, and soft drinks, which are now commonplace throughout the world. ‘Africa, although it should be noted that the chemical identification of ancient fermentation is notoriously difficult. The writings of ancient explorers provide insight into the antiquity of these practices. For example, Ibn Battuta, the Berber Muslim scholar and explorer, during a visit to Mauritania in 1352, spoke of a sour drink made from ground millet mixed with honey and sour milk. Another account of the preparation of wine from honey is found in an account of a Portuguese visit to the west coast of Africa (1506-1510).

Honey and beeswax may also have been used for medicinal, cosmetic and technological purposes. Beeswax has also been used since prehistoric times as a sealant or waterproofing agent on Early Neolithic necked flasks in Northern Europe, as a lamp illuminant in Minoan Crete and mixed with tallow, possibly for making candles, in medieval ships at West Cotton, Northamptonshire. Lead author Dr Julie Dunne from the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol said: ‘This is an outstanding example of how biomolecular information extracted from prehistoric pottery, combined with ethnographic data , provided the first glimpses of ancient honey hunting in West Africa, 3,500 years ago.

Professor Richard Evershed FRS, who heads the Bristol Organic Geochemistry Unit and is a co-author of the study, added: Beeswax in the pottery of the Nok people provides a unique window into this relationship, while all other sources of evidence are lacking.

Professor Peter Breunig of Goethe University, archaeological director of the Nok project and co-author of the study, said: Find evidence of the transformation of meat in the pots. That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago was completely unexpected and unique in West African prehistory.

Professor Katharina Neumann of Goethe University in Frankfurt, archaeobotany director of the Nok project and co-author of the study, added: “Plant and animal remains from archaeological sites usually reveal only a small part. of what prehistoric men ate. The chemical residues of beeswax in the shards open up completely new perspectives for the history of ancient food and resource exploitation.

Reference: “Honey-collecting in prehistoric West Africa from 3,500 years ago” by Julie Dunne, Alexa Höhn, Gabriele Franke, Katharina Neumann, Peter Breunig, Toby Gillard, Caitlin Walton-Doyle and Richard P. Evershed, April 14, 2021, Nature Communication.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-021-22425-4

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