Beeswax in Nok Jars Provides Evidence of Early Use of Honey in West Africa
The bee is the world most important pollinator food crops and beekeeping play an important global economic role. About 1.6 million tonnes of honey produced annually and wild honey is also known to be widely collected by foragers around the world. Bee products like honey, beeswax, bee larvae, pollen and propolis are used for food, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. They also provide source of income for households in much of Africa.
Considerable historical and ethnographic Literature across the continent suggests that bee products, honey, and larvae have long been important as food and in the manufacture of beverages. But we do not know how old the practice of bee exploitation in Africa is.
Our recent project research provided the first direct chemical evidence for the exploitation of honey bee products in West Africa. We achieved this result by analyzing organic residues of prehistoric pottery excavated from Nok cultivation sites in Nigeria.
The Nok people, known for their remarkable large-scale terracotta figurines and the beginnings of ironworking, lived about 3500 years there is in Nigeria. Little was known about their diet and livelihood practices, as the acidic soils at Nok archaeological sites meant that there was little surviving organic matter. Animal bones or plant remains, which revealed whether they cultivated and tended domestic animals or hunted wild game, did not survive.
Analysis of organic residues therefore provides the only way to study the dietary and livelihood practices of the Noks, to provide information on whether they were early farmers or whether they still practiced the hunter way of life- pickers. This has implications for our understanding of the domestication of plants, such as pearl millet, and the timing of domestic animals’ arrival in the region.
The technique of analyzing organic residues consists of crushing small pieces of old pottery. From these, we chemically extracted lipids – fats, oils and waxes from the natural world. This provided a “biomolecular footprint” of the food cooked in Nok pots. Animal fats – such as milk and meat from cattle, sheep, goats and pigs – are by far the most commonly identified foodstuffs in old jars.
This is why we were surprised when our analyzes revealed that a third of the Nok vessels contained a complex series of lipid biomarkers indicating the presence of beeswax. Genetically determined by the biochemistry of the bee, the composition of beeswax is extremely constant. It offers a reliable “chemical fingerprint” to detect the presence of beeswax in archaeological vessels.
What does the presence of beeswax in the jars tell us? After all, beeswax itself is not edible although it can be used for technological and medicinal purposes. Its presence in the pots is probably a consequence of the treatment (melting) of the wax combs by gentle heating, so that the pots absorb some wax. Or it could be that the honey itself was cooked or stored in the jars.
The ancients would probably have sought out wild honeycombs both for their honey, a rare source of sweetness, and perhaps for other bee products, like larvae, which are still consumed in several places across the world today. Honey provides a source of high quality dietary energy, fat and protein and is often a important food source for hunter-gatherers.
There are several groups in Africa, such as the Efe gatherers from the Ituri forest in eastern Zaire, who have historically relied on honey as the main source of food. They collect all parts of the hive, including honey, pollen, and bee larvae, from tree hollows that can be up to 30 meters from the ground, using smoke to distract the stinging bees.
Honey may also have been used as a preservative to store other products. From Okiek people of Kenya, which rely on trapping and hunting a wide variety of game, smoked meat is sometimes preserved with honey, for up to three years. A number of Nok jars contained biomarkers suggesting 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 commonplace. across Africa today. The writings of ancient explorers provide insight into the antiquity of these practices. For exampleIbn Battuta, 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. A other 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).
Read more: Does alcohol have an undisclosed African heritage?
Another possibility is that the pots themselves have been used as beehives, which involves some bee management. This is common in modern traditional Nigerian beekeeping, where pottery beehives are placed on the ground or in trees.
Read more: Lessons from Africa on how to build resilient bee colonies
Thus, our identification of beeswax, and possibly honey, in Nok jars raises interesting questions about the antiquity of honey collection in West Africa. Pottery was invented in this region at least 8,000 years before that. Analysis of these early pots may reveal that the region’s early hunter-gatherers also hunted honey.