3500 year-old honeypot: Oldest direct evidence for honey collecting in Africa

Image: Traces of beeswax had been detected in 3500 12 months-previous clay pots like this
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Credit: Peter Breunig, Goethe College Frankfurt

Honey is humankind’s oldest sweetener – and for 1000’s of yrs it was also the only a single. Indirect clues about the significance of bees and bee products and solutions are provided by prehistoric petroglyphs on different continents, established concerning 8,000 and 40,000 many years back. Historical Egyptian reliefs indicate the practice of beekeeping as early as 2600 yr BCE. But for sub-Saharan Africa, immediate archaeological evidence has been lacking till now. The examination of the chemical residues of meals in potsherds has essentially altered the photograph. Archaeologists at Goethe College in cooperation with chemists at the College of Bristol have been in a position to determine beeswax residues in 3500 12 months-aged potsherds of the Nok tradition.

The Nok society in central Nigeria dates among 1500 BCE and the commencing of the Prevalent Era and is recognised specifically for its elaborate terracotta sculptures. These sculptures symbolize the oldest figurative art in Africa. Right up until a couple of decades back, the social context in which these sculptures experienced been designed was entirely unfamiliar. In a job funded by the German Investigate Foundation, Goethe University scientists have been learning the Nok lifestyle in all its archaeological aspects for about twelve a long time. In addition to settlement sample, chronology and meaning of the terracotta sculptures, the research also focussed on natural environment, subsistence and eating plan.

Did the people of the Nok Lifestyle have domesticated animals or had been they hunters? Archaeologists typically use animal bones from excavations to reply these concerns. But what to do if the soil is so acidic that bones are not preserved, as is the case in the Nok area?

The analysis of molecular foods residues in pottery opens up new prospects. This is mainly because the processing of plant and animal solutions in clay pots releases secure chemical compounds, primarily fatty acids (lipids). These can be preserved in the pores of the vessel partitions for thousands of a long time, and can be detected with the support of fuel chromatography.

To the researchers’ wonderful surprise, they located a lot of other factors apart from the remains of wild animals, significantly increasing the previously known spectrum of animals and vegetation employed. There is a person creature in individual that they had not predicted: the honeybee. A 3rd of the examined shards contained large-molecular lipids, regular for beeswax.

It is not doable to reconstruct from the lipids which bee solutions were being employed by the folks of the Nok culture. Most likely they separated the honey from the waxy combs by heating them in the pots. But it is also conceivable that honey was processed collectively with other uncooked resources from animals or crops, or that they manufactured mead. The wax alone could have served complex or medical functions. An additional possibility is the use of clay pots as beehives, as is practised to this working day in conventional African societies.

“We started this study with our colleagues in Bristol since we preferred to know if the Nok folks experienced domesticated animals,” explains Professor Peter Breunig from Goethe University, who is the director of the archaeological Nok challenge. “That honey was portion of their everyday menu was absolutely unanticipated, and one of a kind in the early historical past of Africa until now.”

Dr Julie Dunne from the College of Bristol, initially author of the examine states: “This is a amazing case in point for how biomolecular facts from prehistoric pottery in mixture with ethnographic details offers insight into the use of honey 3500 many years ago.”

Professor Richard Evershed, Head of the Institute for Natural and organic Chemistry at the College of Bristol and co-author of the research points out that the unique romantic relationship amongst people and honeybees was previously recognized in antiquity. “But the discovery of beeswax residues in Nok pottery lets a very unique perception into this connection, when all other sources of evidence are lacking.”

Professor Katharina Neumann, who is in charge of archaeobotany in the Nok task at Goethe College suggests: “Plant and animal residues from archaeological excavations replicate only a compact segment of what prehistoric people ate. The chemical residues make beforehand invisible components of the prehistoric eating plan visible.” The initially immediate proof of beeswax opens up intriguing perspectives for the archaeology of Africa. Neumann: “We suppose that the use of honey in Africa has a very very long tradition. The oldest pottery on the continent is about 11,000 years old. Does it perhaps also have beeswax residues? Archives around the globe store hundreds of ceramic shards from archaeological excavations that are just waiting to expose their tricks by gasoline chromatography and paint a image of the every day everyday living and food plan of prehistoric individuals.”

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Photographs for down load:

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Traces of beeswax had been detected in 3500 calendar year-outdated clay pots like this (photo: Peter Breunig, Goethe College Frankfurt)

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Dr Gabriele Franke, Goethe College archaeologist in the course of the documentation of excavated clay pots at the Nok investigate station in Janjala, Nigeria in August 2016. Traces of beeswax were being detected in clay pots like these (image: Peter Breunig, Goethe College Frankfurt)

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However preferred currently: excavation workers enjoy freshly collected wild honey (picture: Peter Breunig, Goethe College Frankfurt)

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The Nok culture is recognized in Nigeria nowadays for its terracotta collectible figurines (picture: Peter Breunig, Goethe College Frankfurt)&#13

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