Prehistoric Nigerians Were Eating Honey, Molecular Archaeology Proves

Honey appreciation goes back to before humans even existed, it seems, but evidence of the habit in sub-Saharan Africa had been missing until now

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Traces of beeswax were detected in 3500 year-old clay pots like this
Traces of beeswax were detected in 3,500 year-old clay pots found in NigeriaCredit: Peter Breunig / Goethe University Frankfurt
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the beginning was the wasp, predatory insects of whom many laid their eggs inside other insects. They still do.

Among the wasps with that practice are the Sphecidae, thread-waisted nesting wasps. At some point around 130 million years ago, a sphecid apparently shifted to feeding its young on nutritious pollen rather than nutritious fellow insects – and the result was bees.

Certain species of bees, not all, make honey as a dehydrated food for larvae and/or a goody in the honeycomb to eat during seasons when flowers don’t bloom. Absent water, honey doesn’t spoil and has also served people as a preservative or even an ointment in antiquity.

Now researchers from Goethe University in Frankfurt and the University of Bristol report honey consumption in Nigeria 3,500 years ago, among the people associated with the Nok culture, based on an analysis of the residue in clay pots.

Though evidence of beekeeping and honey consumption goes back further elsewhere in the Old World – and nearly 5,000 years in Egypt – the discovery of the pots and their residue is the earliest known evidence of honey utilization in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bees in ancient Egypt: Cartouche of Ramses II at KarnakCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Neanderthals eating honey

When humankind discovered the bee and the honey it makes by regurgitating pollen is not clear. Prehistoric inhabitants of Italy during the Middle Paleolithic some 40,000 years ago, assumed to have been Neanderthals, are found to have mixed beeswax into the pine tree resin used to haft stone tools – that is, to glue stones to a handle.

We can also assume that if they knew of beeswax and were cognizant of its properties, they knew about honey, so we can assume that Neanderthals ate honey too.

The honey habit may even have come about earlier. All mammals except for cats appreciate sweetness, and some scientists speculate that early hominins would “attack” beehives using crude stone tools, eating not only the honey as precious modern types do, but the beeswax and nutritious bee larvae as well. Archaeologists recently suggested that hominins have been predators for about 2 million years; theoretically, throughout that time they could have been eating honey for dessert.

Rock art of honey hunter on a ladder, collecting honey and wax from a hive in a tree: Spain, Arana Cave, dated 8,000-10,000 years agoCredit: Achillea

Adding beeswax to conifer resin would enhance the mixture’s adhesiveness, the researchers explain in the journal PLOS One. Beeswax, in combination with crushed charcoal, was also used in hafting harpoons in Late Paleolithic Germany 13,000 years ago, researchers reported in Antiquity in 2017.

Evidence has also been found strongly suggesting the discovery of beeswax adhesion in prehistoric Southeast Asia.

Neanderthals used beeswax as glue in mid-Stone Age Europe and we can assume they ate the honey insideCredit: Nitr /
Excavation workers eating freshly collected wild honey. You can chew beeswax and the honey will burst out into your mouthCredit: Peter Breunig / Goethe University Frankfurt

Moving on to prehistoric art, archaeologists have found several examples of depictions of humans climbing ladders or ropes in Spain about 10,000 years ago. And one picture, at the Araña Caves in the east, makes clear that the people were doing this to rob honeycombs, an article in Bee World showed in 2015.

Other rock art associated with bees, if the interpretations are correct, have been found from southern Africa to India and Australia. One example from a rock shelter at Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe, a World Heritage Site, plausibly even shows a person smoking out a beehive.

In Turkey, clay pots with beeswax residue were found from around 8,500 years ago. The bible is also ride with references to honey, including the legendary King Solomon's exhortation not to overdo it:

Detail of a Bee Hieroglyph from the tomb complex of Senusret ICredit: Keith Schengili-Roberts

Have you found honey?
Eat only as much as you need,
Lest you be filled with it and vomit. - Proverbs 25:16.

In short, we can surmise that honey was a food source for Homo-kind since time immemorial, but proof is hard to come by. So the discovery of honey residue in clay pots 3,500 years ago in Nigeria isn’t surprising, and it helps flesh out the picture. Certainly, wall reliefs found in Egypt, which isn’t that far from Nigeria, show beekeeping as early as 2,600 B.C.E.

The Nok culture in central Nigeria dates between 1,500 B.C.E. to the start of the Common Era and is famed mainly for terracotta sculptures that are the oldest known figurative art in Africa, the authors explain. The soil there is too acidic to preserve ancient bones, therefore much about the Nok culture and diet remains unknown.

Residue analysis of clay pot fragments is helpful in this context. As long as the clay is unglazed, molecules from the foods – chiefly lipids, molecules of fat – can be adsorbed into the clay matrix and be detected even thousands of years later, using gas chromatography, as explained to Haaretz by Julie Dunne, a member of this team who also recently helped identify the ancient Jewish quarter of medieval Oxford.

In Nigeria, the researchers expected to find fat from cooking animals in the pots; they expected to find signals from plants. They didn’t necessarily expect that a third of the shards from the Nok culture’s clay pots would signal beeswax.

“We began this study with our colleagues in Bristol because we wanted to know if the Nok people had domesticated animals,” said Prof. Peter Breunig of Goethe University, the director of the Nok project. “That honey was part of their daily menu was completely unexpected and unique in the early history of Africa until now.”

Why the beeswax is there we do not know. Maybe the people were heating the honeycomb to separate the sweet stuff from the wax. Maybe it was used to sweeten stews. Maybe they were making a sort of mead, the researchers suggest. They may even have been husbanding bees using clay pots as hives, which is done in parts of Africa to this day.

“We assume that the use of honey in Africa has a very long tradition,” said Prof. Katharina Neumann, who is in charge of archaeobotany at Goethe University’s Nok project. She also points out that pottery in Africa goes back at least 11,000 years – not all of it will have chemical residue of long-gone meals, but some will.

All of which begs the question: Is honey actually good for you? No. It’s sugar.

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