Researchers have discovered a 3,500 year-old honeypot from Africa, presenting the oldest direct evidence for honey collection in the continent.

Archaeologists from the Goethe University in Germany in cooperation with chemists at the University of Bristol in the UK identified beeswax residues in 3,500 year-old potsherds of the Nok culture.

The Nok culture in central Nigeria dates between 1,500 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era and is known particularly for its elaborate terracotta sculptures — representatives of the oldest figurative art in Africa.

“That honey was part of their daily menu was completely unexpected, and unique in the early history of Africa until now,” said Peter Breunig, Professor from Goethe.

“This is a remarkable example for how biomolecular information from prehistoric pottery in combination with ethnographic data provides insight into the use of honey 3,500 years ago,” said Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol. The findings are detailed in the journal Nature Communications.

The team began the study to know if the Nok people had domesticated animals. But a third of the examined shards contained high-molecular lipids, typical for beeswax, they researchers noted. It is not possible to reconstruct from the lipids which bee products were used by the people of the Nok culture. Most probably they separated the honey from the waxy combs by heating them in the pots.

But it is also conceivable that honey was processed together with other raw materials from animals or plants, or that they made mead. The wax itself could have served technical or medical purposes. Another possibility is the use of clay pots as beehives, as is practised to this day in traditional African societies, the team explained.

“We assume that the use of honey in Africa has a very long tradition. The oldest pottery on the continent is about 11,000 years old. Does it perhaps also contain beeswax residues?” Professor Katharina Neumann, from Goethe said.