The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Honey, hunter-gatherers, and human evolution


Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Saturday 10:30-10:45, Galleria South Add to calendar

Honey is the most energy dense food in nature (Skinner, 1991) and important for many hunter-gatherers. The Hadza of Tanzania do not eat insects except for some bee brood when they acquire honey from 7 different species of bees. Of all the foods in their diet honey is their favorite (Berbesque & Marlowe, 2009). They often follow the honeyguide bird (Indicator indicator), which leads them to bee hives. They use wooden stakes, axes, and torches when they climb tall baobab trees to raid large bee hives. The torch smoke causes bees to engorge themselves on honey in preparation for moving the hive and it masks alarm pheromones, calming the bees, resulting in fewer stings. These tools make humans capable of acquiring much larger amounts of honey than our great ape relatives. The amount of honey acquired varies greatly, 19 times more in the rainy than the dry season. Virtually all warm-climate foragers have honey in their diet. Of the 27 foraging societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample with data on honey consumption, 13 do and 14 do not eat honey. The latter all live in cold climates with effective temperature below 13ÂșC where honey is rare to nonexistent. Of the 14 societies in warmer habitats 13 (93%) do acquire honey. Given that our great ape relatives acquire honey, it seems likely that honey has been a part of the hominin diet since before the Homo/Pan divergence, increasing with increasing sophistication of tools that aid in getting access to bee hives.

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