How important is honey in the diets of hunter-gatherers?
Why do they take great personal risk to gather honey?
Was honey important in the diets of our ancestors?
Did the additional energy obtained from honey allow our ancient ancestors to develop larger brains?
These are the sort of questions asked by researchers interested in the intersection of anthropology, nutrition and evolutionary theory.
In particular, they are questions being asked by Alyssa Crittenden, a behavioral ecologist and nutritional anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Professor Crittenden is an expert on the evolution of the human diet, and has worked with the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania since 2004.
Prof. Crittenden posits the theory that, based on multiple lines of evidence, “The ability to find and exploit beehives using stone tools may have been an innovation that allowed early Homo to nutritionally out-compete other species and may have provided critical energy to fuel the enlarging hominin brain.”
The Importance of Honey in the Diets of Hunter-Gatherers
In previous articles on the Frontier Blog we have highlighted the Hadza’s love of honey and their remarkable relationship with the honeyguide, Indicator indicator.
Indeed, anthropologists have recorded honey making up around 15% of the Hadza diet.
Looking more widely at other hunter-gathering populations that still exist in our world, honey is a significant source of nutrition to many of them. A large number of studies have confirmed that honey collection is important to foraging groups in Latin America, Asia, Australia and Africa.
Honey is a very energy-dense food. Liquid honey is 80-90% sugar, being mainly sucrose and fructose.
It is not just the honey itself which forms an important dietary constituent. Bee larvae contain protein and fat as well as some essential minerals and vitamins.
The importance of this in the diet of peoples who actively seek out bees nests is exemplified by the Ache of Paraguay. Studies have been recorded them consuming an average of 1,163 calories per person per day from honey and larvae.
Crittenden states “Combined, honey and bee larvae are excellent sources of energy, fat, and protein and represent high-quality food sources”.
Among the Hadza, honey is the most prized food source.
Honey In the Diets of Our Stone Age Ancestors
Our ancestors recorded the fact that they gathered honey. They recorded it in their rock art. Examples dated back to 40,000 years ago have been found.
Many of these rock paintings are in Africa but rock art depicting honey collection has been found in numerous parts of the world, from India to Australia.
Some has also been found in Europe.
Some of it is relatively recent, having been dated to the Mesolithic.
Rock art at the La Arana shelter, Valencia, Spain dated to 10,000 years ago depicts honey collection, honeycombs and swarms of bees.
So it seems that honey collection was a significant activity for our ancestors. It was certainly significant enough for them to draw it into their rock art.
Crittenden also makes the reasonable assertion that it is likely that our ancestors started raiding bees nests long before they started to draw the activity.
Diet and Human Evolution
Professor Crittenden has pointed out that honey “may have been a crucial food in human evolution but one that has received little to no attention”.
One of the reasons honey maybe hasn’t received much attention is to do with what is preserved in the archaeological record.
Stone tools are preserved well in the archaeological record. Study of these tools and analysis of the wear patterns on them has painted a picture of our ancestors as hunters/scavengers that used stone tools for butchery.
In addition, the analysis of wear on the teeth of fossilised skulls has painted a picture of a hard diet of nuts, seeds, roots and tubers.
The overall picture of our ancestors that has been formed (and propogated over the last 40 or so years) is of them being largely dependent upon meat and roots/tubers.
Crittenden postulates that the basic Oldowan toolkit could easily have been used for accessing bees nests.
Moreoever, these tools seem to have been first manufactured in the part of the world – and in a similar habitat – to which the Hadza currently inhabit. This is a habitat where bees nests are still exploited to this day.
The answer to the question of how long this practice has been going on is difficult to know. Honeycomb and wooden tools don’t survive in the archaelogical record. Stone tools used for butchery could also have been used for cutting into tree trunks.
Our Big Brains
Our brains are metabolically expensive to run, requiring a lot of energy to maintain their function. As discussed here “Although the brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization.”
As our distant ancestors evolved larger brains, they must have had access to energy-rich foods to support these bigger brains.
Crittenden’s hypothesis is that honey could have played a much larger role in supporting an enlarging hominin brain than paleoanthropologists have previously credited.
Want to Know More?
Listen to a radio interview with Alyssa Crittenden about the importance of honey:
Listen to an episode of the Paul Kirtley Podcast with Alyssa Crittenden as guest: