Africa’s first Iron Age culture had a sweet tooth

Chemical traces of 3,500-year-old beeswax on pottery shards in central Nigeria shed light on an often invisible aspect of ancient diets – and somewhat what fueled the culture that started the Age of iron in Africa.

These farmers were great in metal

Terms like “the iron age” only make sense if you are talking about a particular place, since periods of technological innovation did not start all over the world at the same time. People in many regions have discovered, at different times, how to turn iron ore into a mineable metal. Some cultures fought for themselves, while others learned the new technology from neighbors, business partners, or conquerors.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the Iron Age began between 1000 and 550 BCE, and it began with the Nok people, a culture who carved elaborate terracotta figurines, cultivated millet, and developed smelting iron. The first traces of the Nok culture appear in the archaeological records of Nigeria around 1500 BCE, and they did not disappear until 2000 years later, around 500 CE. Archaeologists still do not know if the Nok culture originated in Nigeria or if the Nok people moved south from a place like modern Mauritania, Mali, Niger or Chad, where millet is an indigenous culture. .

This is a familiar debate in archeology: Has the technology of millet cultivation spread south from one group of people to another or has a group of millet cultivators moved? south and brought his crops with them? In the case of the Nok, archaeologists like Peter Breunig lean towards the idea that farmers actually migrated south to what is now central Nigeria. There they cultivated millet and coexisted with other groups of people who lived mainly by hunting, gathering and fishing. But the Nok couldn’t have made a living on millet on their own, and Breunig and his colleagues are still trying to find out if they also raised cattle or hunted – or did a bit of both. What type of meat fueled the rise of the Iron Age in Africa?

Spoiler alert: we still don’t know. But thanks to a recent study, in which a team led by Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol looked for microscopic chemical residues in 458 Nok shards, we do know that the Nok apparently ate honey.

Some terracotta figurines emblematic of the Nok culture.  Most figurines depict people or animals, and human figurines are known for their elaborate hairstyles.
Enlarge / Some terracotta figurines emblematic of the Nok culture. Most figurines depict people or animals, and human figurines are known for their elaborate hairstyles.

This is an interesting finding for a handful of reasons. First of all, it teaches us something new about the Nok, a fascinating culture that we understand mainly through their terracotta sculptures. Second, it completely reverses the usual way of things in archeology. In most archaeological sites, the only traces of ancient meals are usually animal bones and perhaps a few seeds or plant fragments. Foods other than meat and plants are completely invisible in archaeological records.

“Plant and animal remains from archaeological sites usually reveal only a small portion of what prehistoric people ate,” said Katharina Neumann, archaeologist at the University of Goethe, co-author of the study. For the Nok, archaeologists now have a piece of the puzzle that is usually missing, but still don’t know what kind of meat they ate.

What is all the buzz about?

The soil in central Nigeria is so acidic that the bones dissolve in it, so archaeologists don’t have pieces of game or cattle slaughtered from ancient Nok pantries. To find out what was on the Noks’ menu when they weren’t busy cultivating and inventing ironwork, Dunne and his colleagues examined the insides of broken ceramic pots from a dozen Nok sites, looking for chemical traces of past meals.

They used a technique called gas chromatography / mass spectrometry, which examines the chemical makeup of a substance by heating it. Heat separates the substance into the individual compounds that make it up, and a mass spectrometer then identifies each chemical based on its mass.

Specifically, the team was looking for lipids, molecules that make up things like fats, oils, and waxes. Different species and different materials contain different types of lipids. Previous studies have used lipid residues to identify traces of ancient dairy products or to find out whether people ate cattle or goats and sheep.

Dunne and his colleagues expected to find the same kind of information: lipids that would reveal whether people had eaten domestic cattle or wild deer, for example. Instead, they found lipids that matched those in modern beeswax samples. Of 458 pottery shards, 66 contained enough lipid residue to work, and 25 of them contained lipids matching those found in modern beeswax samples.

“We originally started studying the chemical residues in pottery shards due to the lack of animal bones at the Nok sites, in the hope of finding evidence of meat processing. in the pots, ”said Peter Breunig, archaeologist at the University of Goethe. “The fact that the Nok people exploited honey 3,500 years ago was totally unexpected and is unique in West African prehistory.”

Combine the past to get answers

To be clear, what’s surprising is that archaeologists found the lipid residue, not that the Iron Age people used honey. Rock art from the Didimia Gorge in Namibia and elsewhere in southern Africa, dating back to 40,000 years ago, depicts bees, honeycombs and collecting honey. And a piece of beeswax and resin mixed together, used to cut a point of bone, ended up in a 40,000-year-old layer at Border Cave in South Africa.

Modern hunter-gatherers – and even rural farmers in many parts of the world, including West Africa – still collect honeycombs as a source of food. Honey is sweet, of course, but it’s also high in protein and energy, especially if you eat the comb with the larvae and pupae still inside, as the Efe of the Ituri Forest often do.

Honey also ferments into alcohol and is a decent medicine for some minor ailments and injuries. Beeswax, the honeycomb substance is made of, is perfect for sealing containers or providing fuel for candles or lamps. If you’re ready to climb a tree and take care of bees, beehives offer a very useful resource, and it’s no surprise that the ancients understood this and jumped into the action. What is surprising is that 3,500 years later, microscopic traces of this sticky, sweet staple still cling to the insides of dishes long thrown away.

The lipid residues had been absorbed by the inner surface of the vessels, suggesting that they had been slowly heated, stored for a long time, or perhaps both. This means that people may have melted the honeycomb to separate the beeswax from the honey and brood (larvae and pupae – pro tip: if you want to annoy a beekeeper, insist on calling the brood out. “Baby bees”). A former cook may also have included the honeycomb in a dish for flavor.

One jar in Dunne and colleagues’ study contained beeswax and meat lipids. Today, the Okiek people of Kenya use honey to preserve their smoked meat, which can last up to 3 years. Elder Nok may have done something similar. It is also possible that the Nok are beekeepers. Modern beekeepers in parts of Nigeria still practice a traditional approach, using clay beehives on the ground or in trees. However, the jars in the study appear too small to have been used for this purpose.

“The chemical beeswax residue in shards opens up completely new perspectives for the history of ancient food and resource exploitation,” Neumann said. This will likely mean further investigation of shards from other Nok sites – and other cultures in sub-Saharan Africa – to try to find out more about how people used bee resources.

Nature communications, DOI 2021: 10.1038 / s41467-021-22425-4 (About DOIs).

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