January 18, 2022


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Ancient pottery reveals the first evidence for honey hunting in prehistoric West Africa


Picture: Image of Nok terracotta figurines.
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Credit: Goethe University

A staff of scientists, led by the University of Bristol, with colleagues from Goethe College, Frankfurt, has discovered the very first evidence for historic honey hunting, locked inside pottery fragments from prehistoric West Africa, dating back some 3,500 yrs in the past.

Honeybees are an legendary species, currently being the world’s most vital pollinator of food items crops. Honeybee hive solutions, which includes beeswax, honey and pollen, applied both of those for food stuff and medicinal functions, assist livelihoods and present sources of profits for nearby communities across much of Africa, via both beekeeping and wild harvest.

Currently, honey is gathered from wild bee nests in numerous African nations around the world. In the West African tropical rain forest, hunting for wild honey, uncovered in pure hollows in tree trunks and on the underside of thick branches, is a typical subsistence exercise.

It is not known how extensive human beings have been exploiting bee solutions. Honey would undoubtedly have been a unusual source of sweetener for historical men and women and was in all probability extremely sought after. However, there is incredibly small surviving proof for historical human exploitation of the honeybee, apart from for palaeolithic rock art which demonstrates bees and honeycombs, spanning the interval 40,000 to 8,000 many years ago, the the vast majority of which is located in Africa.

Historical and ethnographic literature from across Africa also implies that bee solutions, honey and larvae, were essential both of those as a foods source and in the creating of honey-based mostly drinks, such as beer and wine.

The Bristol workforce were carrying out chemical assessment of more than 450 prehistoric potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to look into what food items they had been cooking in their pots. The Nok persons are recognised for their remarkable big-scale terracotta figurines and early iron output in West Africa, around the initially millennium BC. Acidic soils at Nok archaeological web sites meant that natural remains these types of as animal bones and plants did not survive really well so what Nok men and women have been taking in was to some degree of a secret.

To the team’s good shock, their results, posted today in the journal Character Communications, exposed that about one particular 3rd of the pottery vessels utilized by the historical Nok people today had been employed to procedure or shop beeswax. The existence of beeswax in historic pottery is determined by way of a complicated collection of lipids, the fat, oils and waxes of the organic planet. The beeswax is in all probability current as a consequence either of the processing (melting) of wax combs through light heating, foremost to its absorption within the vessel partitions, or, alternatively, beeswax is assumed to act as a proxy for the cooking or storage of honey by itself.

Honey is often an essential food stuff source for hunter-gatherers and there are several teams in Africa, these types of as the Efe foragers of the Ituri Forest, Jap Zaire, who have historically relied on honey as their key supply of food items, accumulating all parts of the hive, which includes honey, pollen and bee larvae, from tree hollows which can be up to 30 m from the floor, employing smoke to distract the stinging bees.

Honey might also have been employed as a preservative to store other items. Amongst the Okiek people of Kenya, who depend on the trapping and hunting of a broad variety of video game, smoked meat is preserved with honey, staying stored for up to a few yrs, A number of the Nok pots contained chemical evidence for the presence of each beeswax and meat merchandise.

As effectively as working with honey as a foodstuff source, it may have been utilised to make honey-primarily based beverages, wine, beer and non-alcoholic drinks, which are commonplace across Africa nowadays, although it must be mentioned that the chemical identification of ancient fermentation is notoriously difficult. The writings of ancient explorers offer insights into the antiquity of these procedures. For instance, Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Berber scholar and explorer, whilst viewing Mauritania in 1352, tells of a sour consume manufactured from floor millet combined with honey and bitter milk. A even further account of the preparation of wine from honey is uncovered in a record of a Portuguese stop by to the west coast of Africa (1506-1510).

Honey and beeswax may possibly also have been utilised for medicinal, cosmetic and technological applications. Beeswax has also variously been utilized from prehistoric times as a sealant or waterproofing agent on Early Neolithic collared flasks in northern Europe, as a lamp illuminant in Minoan Crete and mixed with tallow, possibly for generating candles, in medieval vessels at West Cotton, Northamptonshire. &#13
Guide writer, Dr Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, mentioned: “This is a remarkable illustration of how biomolecular information and facts extracted from prehistoric pottery, combined with ethnographic knowledge, has provided the to start with insights into historical honey searching in West Africa, 3,500 yrs ago.”

Professor Richard Evershed FRS who heads up Bristol’s Natural and organic Geochemistry Device and is a co-creator of the study, extra: “The affiliation of prehistoric men and women with the honey bee is a recurring topic throughout the historical environment, nevertheless, the discovery of the chemical factors of beeswax in the pottery of the Nok individuals supplies a special window on this relationship, when all other resources of proof are missing.”

Professor Peter Breunig from Goethe College who is the archaeological director of the Nok challenge and co-creator of the research, reported: “We at first started out the examine of chemical residues in pottery sherds due to the fact of the absence of animal bones at Nok internet sites, hoping to locate proof for meat processing in the pots. That the Nok men and women exploited honey 3,500 decades back, was wholly unexpected and is exceptional in West African prehistory.”

Professor Katharina Neumann from Goethe College, Frankfurt, who is the archaeobotanical director of the Nok undertaking and co-writer of the analyze, extra: “Plant and animal remains from archaeological web-sites typically reveal only a compact part of what prehistoric men and women had been consuming. Chemical residues of beeswax in potsherds opens up totally new perspectives for the history of source exploitation and historic diet program.”&#13