Ancient Pottery Fragments Reveal Prehistoric Fondness for Honey

A chemical analysis by international researchers of African pottery shards suggests that humans were collecting and storing honey roughly 3,500 years ago.

A hive of honeybees on display in Vermont in 2014. (AP Photo/Andy Duback, File)

(CN) — A fresh look into ancient pottery fragments has revealed the earliest known evidence of honey hunting, indicating that prehistoric African societies used the sweet substance.

Crafted within complex hives and honeycombs from plant nectar collected by pollinating honeybees, honey and the corresponding beeswax has been used for a number of culinary and medicinal purposes. While it is widely used today as a common cooking ingredient and natural sweetener, cultures throughout history have relied on honey to treat skin ailments, provide sustainable calories for hunters in warmer climates and even to help ferment some of mankind’s earliest attempts at alcoholic beverages.

While some surviving cave paintings from Africa and Spain depict humans interacting with bees and honeycombs sometime between 40,000 to 8,000 years ago, sturdier evidence on the timeline detailing humankind’s early appreciation for honey has been hard to come by, which is why a team of international researchers was excited to stumble across exactly that – even if such a discovery was not at all what they were looking for.

In a study published Wednesday in Nature Communications, a team of researchers say they have discovered chemical evidence of beeswax in ancient pottery fragments that once belonged to the Central Nigerian Nok culture of Africa, a continent that has a long tradition of hunting for wild honey.

Because these pottery pieces date back to around the first millennium B.C., researchers were able to conclude that the presence of beeswax in the pottery vessels suggests that humans were already in the business of storing honey roughly 3,500 years ago.

Scientists initially began their research to determine what kinds of meat signatures were left in the roughly 450 prehistoric pottery fragments in the hopes they could learn more about the diets of the Nok people, and their honey discovery was a complete surprise.  

“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,” Peter Breunig, professor at Goethe University, archaeological director of the Nok project and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago, was completely unexpected and is unique in West African prehistory.”

Researchers are not quite sure what the beeswax found in the pottery fragments was used for, but historical evidence from the region gives them a few ideas.

For one, experts are fairly certain that beeswax found inside the pottery pieces was there either as a result of using the pottery to melt the honeycombs or used to cook or store the honey.

While African societies and cultures have been historically well versed in using honey as a food or drink source, given the substance’s versatility to hunter-gather groups in warmer areas, researchers think these early humans were also creative with their honey usage. The Okiek people of Kenya, for instance, used honey as a means of preserving smoked meat that allowed it to be kept for up to three years after being smoked.

This possibility in supported by the fact that meat signatures — in a pleasant discovery that harkened back to the researchers’ original study purpose — were found in a number of the Nok pottery pieces alongside the beeswax.

While experts are left somewhat unsure how exactly humans were using their honey from over three thousand years ago, Goethe University professor Katharina Neumann, another director of the Nok project and co-author of the study, says that Wednesday’s discovery could open up new doors into discovering what foods and resources these prehistoric humans prioritized.

“Plant and animal remains from archaeological sites usually reveal only a small part of what prehistoric people had been eating,” Neumann said. “Chemical residues of beeswax in potsherds opens up completely new perspectives for the history of resource exploitation and ancient diet.”

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