Study finds first evidence of honey hunting in prehistoric West Africa

Around 3,500 years ago, prehistoric communities from West Africa used to hunt for honey and then use it for food and medicinal purposes, according to a new study. Researchers found fragments of honey locked inside pottery fragments, which shows the importance of honey collecting in an early farming context.

Image credit: The researchers

Honey is the most important insect-related food globally. It comprises 80–95% sugar, several essential vitamins and minerals, and components that act as preservatives. Wild honey is known to be collected by foragers globally, except in environments such as the Arctic, where bees don’t survive.

Today, honeybees are an integral part of socio-ecological landscapes and beekeeping plays an important economic role with around 1.6 million tons of honey being produced annually around the world. However, evidence for ancient human exploitation of the honeybee is rare, with the exception of paleolithic rock art depicting bees and honey.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol and the Goethe University carried out a chemical analysis of more than 450 prehistoric potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate what foods they were cooking in their pots. The team found that a third of the vessels were used to process or store beeswax. 

“We originally started the study of chemical residues in pottery sherds because of the lack of animal bones at Nok sites, hoping to find evidence for meat processing in the pots. That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago, was completely unexpected,” Peter Breuning, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. 

The presence of beeswax in ancient pottery is identified through a complex series of lipids — the fats, oils, and waxes of the natural world. The vessels were likely used to melt the wax combs, leading to its absorption within the vessel walls, to cook the wax, or to store the honey itself, the researchers argued in their study. 

Honey is an important food source for hunter-gatherers and there are several groups in Africa, such as the Efe foragers of the Ituri Forest, who have historically relied on honey as their main source of food, collecting all parts of the hive — including honey and pollen from tree hollows which can be up to 30 m from the ground.

As well as using it as a food source, the researchers argued honey could have also been used to make drinks such as beer and wine – which are common across Africa today. Writings of ancient explorers describe the use of these practices. Ibn Battuta, a Muslim scholar, tells of a drink made with honey in Mauritania in 1352. 

Honey and beeswax may also have been used for medicinal, cosmetic, and technological purposes. There are records of beeswax being used in prehistoric times as a sealant or waterproofing agent, as a lamp illuminant, and as raw material to make candles. Honey was also been recorded to be used to store other products such as smoked meat. 

Professor Richard Evershed, co-author, said in a statement: “The association of prehistoric people with the honey bee is a recurring theme across the ancient world, however, the discovery of the chemical components of beeswax in the pottery of the Nok people provides a unique window on this relationship, when all other sources of evidence are lacking.”

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

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