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Beeswax in Nok pots supplies proof of early West African honey use

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The honeybee is the world’s most vital pollinator of meals crops and beekeeping performs an vital international financial function. Round 1.6 million tonnes of honey is produced yearly and wild honey can be recognized to be broadly collected by foragers globally. Hive merchandise like honey, beeswax, bee larvae, pollen and propolis are used for meals, medicinal and beauty functions. Additionally they present sources of revenue for households throughout a lot of Africa.

Appreciable historic and ethnographic literature throughout the continent suggests bee merchandise, honey and larvae have lengthy been vital as meals and in making drinks. But it surely’s not recognized how outdated the follow of honeybee exploitation is in Africa.

Our current mission analysis has yielded the primary direct chemical proof for honeybee product exploitation in West Africa. We achieved this end result by analysing natural residues of prehistoric pottery excavated from Nok tradition websites in Nigeria.

The Nok folks, recognized for his or her exceptional large-scale terracotta collectible figurines and early iron working, lived round 3,500 years in the past in Nigeria. Little was recognized of their weight-reduction plan and subsistence practices, as acidic soils at Nok archaeological websites meant there was little surviving natural materials. Animal bones or plant stays, which might reveal whether or not they grew crops and stored domesticated animals or hunted wild recreation, didn’t survive.

Natural residue evaluation thus supplies the one means to research weight-reduction plan and subsistence practices of Nok folks, to supply data on whether or not they have been early farmers or nonetheless practising the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This has implications for our understanding of the domestication of crops, similar to pearl millet, and the timing of the arrival of domesticated animals within the space.

Our analysis

The strategy of natural residue evaluation includes grinding up small items of historic pottery. From these we chemically extracted lipids – the fat, oils and waxes of the pure world. This offered a “biomolecular fingerprint” of the meals cooked in Nok pots. Animal fat – similar to milk and meat from cattle, sheep, goats and pigs – are by far the most typical foodstuffs recognized in historic pots.

That’s why we have been shocked when our analyses revealed that one third of Nok vessels contained a posh collection of lipid biomarkers that pointed to the presence of beeswax. Decided genetically by means of the honeybee’s biochemistry, the composition of beeswax is extraordinarily fixed. It gives a dependable “chemical fingerprint” for detecting the presence of beeswax in archaeological vessels.

What does the presence of beeswax within the pots inform us? In any case, beeswax itself isn’t edible though it may be used for technological and medicinal functions. Its presence within the pots might be a consequence of the processing (melting) of wax combs by means of mild heating, in order that the pots absorbed some wax. Or it could possibly be that honey itself was cooked or saved within the pots.

Historical folks would most likely have sought out wild bee nests each for his or her honey, a uncommon supply of sweetness, and probably different bee merchandise, such because the larvae, that are nonetheless eaten in lots of locations throughout the globe in the present day. Honey gives a top quality supply of dietary power, fats and protein and is commonly an vital meals supply for hunter-gatherers.

There are a number of teams in Africa, such because the Efe foragers of the Ituri Forest, Japanese Zaire, who’ve traditionally relied on honey as their important supply of meals. They accumulate all elements of the hive, together with honey, pollen and bee larvae, from tree hollows which will be as much as 30 metres from the bottom, utilizing smoke to distract the stinging bees.

Honey may have been used as a preservative to retailer different merchandise. Among the many Okiek folks of Kenya, who depend on the trapping and searching of all kinds of recreation, smoked meat is typically preserved with honey, being stored for as much as three years. Numerous the Nok pots did comprise biomarkers suggesting the presence of each beeswax and meat merchandise.

Instance of modern-day African ceramic beehive.
Courtesy Bees for Growth

In addition to utilizing honey as a meals supply, it might have been used to make honey-based drinks, wine, beer and non-alcoholic drinks, that are commonplace throughout Africa in the present day. The writings of historic explorers present insights into the antiquity of those practices. For instance, Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Berber scholar and explorer, whereas visiting Mauritania in 1352, informed of a bitter drink produced from floor millet blended with honey and bitter milk. An extra account of the preparation of wine from honey is present in a file of a Portuguese go to to the west coast of Africa (1506-1510).




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An extra risk is that the pots themselves could have been used as beehives, implying some administration of the bees. That is commonplace in modern-day Nigerian conventional beekeeping, the place pottery hives are both positioned on the bottom or in bushes.




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Thus, our identification of beeswax, and probably honey, in Nok pots raises attention-grabbing questions in regards to the antiquity of honey gathering in West Africa. Pottery was invented on this area not less than 8,000 years earlier than this. It’s attainable that evaluation of those early pots would reveal early hunter-gatherers within the area have been honey-hunting too.

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