The oldest ever evidence of HONEY has been discovered in 3,500-year-old pottery shards

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People living in West Africa 3,500 years ago hunted wild beehives for their honey and kept it in jars, scientists have discovered.

Beeswax remains were found intact on recently excavated shards of pottery from the Nok people of Nigeria – the oldest evidence of the honey hunt ever found.

Pottery fragments reveal that beeswax was stored more than three millennia ago and may have used it as a food, medicine, or to sweeten beverages, including beer and wine.

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In the photo, excavated Nok ships are being cleaned and photographed at the Janjala research station by Dr. Gabriele Franke from Goethe University

In parts of Africa, honey is today collected from wild bee nests found in natural cavities in tree trunks and at the undersides of thick branches.  In the photo, a local collector brings a freshly collected honey bee comb to the archaeological dig in Ifana

In parts of Africa, honey is now collected from wild bee nests found in natural hollows in tree trunks and at the undersides of thick branches. In the photo, a local collector brings a freshly collected honey bee comb to the archaeological dig in Ifana

How was honey used?

One-third of the pottery vessels used by the ancient Nok people were used to process or store beeswax, researchers found.

They also believe that the beeswax was made by melting wax combs or by the storage of honey itself.

But the scientists also say the honey may have been used to make honey-based drinks – including wine, beer and non-alcoholic drinks – or for medicinal, cosmetic and technological purposes.

For example, other archaeological sites have found evidence that beeswax is used as a sealant and fuel for primitive lamps and candles.

Exactly how long people have been looking for honey remains unknown, but experts suspect that people have been consuming honey for a long time.

Researchers at the University of Bristol analyzed more than 450 pieces of pottery from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate what goods they owned.

The Nok people are known for their remarkable large-scale terracotta figurines and early iron production in West Africa, around the first millennium BC.

One-third of the pottery vessels used by the ancient Nok people were used to process or store beeswax, researchers found.

They also believe that the beeswax was made by melting wax combs or by the storage of honey itself.

But the scientists also say the honey may have been used to make honey-based drinks – including wine, beer and non-alcoholic drinks – or for medicinal, cosmetic and technological purposes.

For example, other archaeological sites have found evidence that beeswax is used as a sealant and fuel for primitive lamps and candles.

Lead author, Dr Julie Dunne of the University of Bristol, said: “ This is a remarkable example of how biomolecular information extracted from prehistoric pottery, combined with ethnographic data, has provided the first insights into the ancient honey hunt in West Africa, 3,500 years. ago. . ‘

Pictured, a map showing the distribution of the Nok archaeological sites sampled in this study

Pictured, a map showing the distribution of the Nok archaeological sites sampled in this study

Researchers at the University of Bristol analyzed the chemicals on more than 450 potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate which foods they contained.  Pictured, excavation work at the Ifana site

Researchers from the University of Bristol analyzed the chemicals on more than 450 potsherds from the Central Nigerian Nok culture to investigate which foods they contained. Pictured, excavation work at the Ifana site

Pictured, the view from a granite hill of the Ifana excavation site (in the distance) during the rainy season

Pictured, the view from a granite hill of the Ifana excavation site (in the distance) during the rainy season

In parts of Africa, honey is today collected from wild bee nests found in natural cavities in tree trunks and at the undersides of thick branches.

The Efe collectors of East Zaire’s Ituri Forest, for example, have long relied on honey as their primary food source.

They use smoke to divert the stinging bees and collect all parts of the hive, including honey, pollen and bee larvae, from tree cavities that can be up to 30 meters above the ground.

The Nok people are known for their remarkable large-scale terracotta figurines (pictured) and early iron production in West Africa, around the first millennium BC.  But researchers also found evidence of beeswax in their pottery

The Nok people are known for their remarkable large-scale terracotta figurines (pictured) and early iron production in West Africa, around the first millennium BC. But researchers also found evidence of beeswax in their pottery

Pictured are beautiful Nok culture terracotta figurines excavated at the Ifana site in Nigeria as part of the excavation

Pictured are beautiful Nok culture terracotta figurines excavated at the Ifana site in Nigeria as part of the excavation

Honey may also have been used as a preservative to store other products, with the Okiek people in Kenya using honey to preserve the meat they hunt and smoke.

Professor Peter Breunig of Goethe University, the archaeological director of the Nok project and co-author of the study, said: ‘We originally started researching chemical residues in pottery shards due to the lack of animal bones at Nok sites, hoping to find evidence for meat processing in the jars.

“That the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago was completely unexpected and unique in West African prehistory.”

How do honey bees make a queen?

The queen bee's brood cell is pictured above

The queen bee’s brood cell is pictured above

Honeybees make a queen by treating a normal young in a unique way, so that it develops into a queen instead of a worker.

They start by building a special, larger cell and filling it with a substance called ‘royal jelly’.

This is a combination of water, sugars and proteins that appears milky in color and is secreted by glands in the heads of worker bees.

A young is then plucked from its cell and placed in the unique royal jelly cell, which it eats.

To support its development, a study published in Science Advances in 2015 suggested that it also denied pollen and honey to aid development, which is fed to normal workers.