Archaeologists discover 3500-year-old terracotta pots that once held honey

Archaeologists working at an excavation site in central Nigeria have discovered terracotta pottery pieces, some of which are as old as 3500 years. The pottery pieces show direct evidence that the pods once held honey, which is considered the oldest sweetener known to humanity. Researchers analyze residue found in the shards and found compounds from beeswax suggesting that waxy combs might've been heated in vessels to separate the honey.

Researchers consider the discovery an exciting finding for archaeology as it illustrates direct evidence in sub-Saharan Africa related to bees and beekeeping, which has been lacking until now. The pottery shards are associated with the Nok culture, which is a civilization that arose around 1500 BC and survived for about 1500 years.

The Nok are known for elaborate terracotta sculptures, some of the oldest known figurine art in Africa. The culture grew at a time and place where early farmers and foragers coexisted, but whether or not the Nok had domesticated animals are if there are primarily hunters is unknown.

Researchers have been working at the site trying to learn more about the culture from artifacts, including the foods they ate. Scientists routinely look at food remains to learn about foraging, hunting, and agricultural practices in a region. Typically, they look for animal bones in the soil, but in the sites located in central Nigeria, the acidic soil doesn't preserve animal remains.

This led the researchers to study pottery shards with over 450 pieces discovered so far. About a third of the pottery pieces discovered had complex lipids that were found in beeswax. They believe the beeswax was trapped in the pores of the vessel when melted during heating or were absorbed in the pottery during storage of honeycomb. Researchers point out that stable lipids originating from beeswax could remain preserved for thousands of years.