The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Honey exploitation by chimpanzees and hunter-gatherers indicates an ancient use of fire by humans


Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Saturday 8:30-8:45, Ballroom C Add to calendar

Honey is a ubiquitous and preferred food for all African apes and human foragers, often occurring at high density and providing much more food for foragers than for apes. Here we investigate the factors constraining the frequency of honey-eating by chimpanzees Pan troglodytes foraging on honey of stinging bees Apis mellifera. We studied Apis honey-eating over 19 years by chimpanzees of the Kanyawara community, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Honey-eating occurred in a strongly seasonal pattern and occupied less than 1% of feeding time. In 48% of their investigations of hives, chimpanzees obtained no honey. Some visits were to old hives with few bees and little honey, but active hives were strongly defended by bees, responsible for chimpanzees fleeing the hive in at least 59% of visits. We conclude that defense by bees prevented chimpanzees from eating honey at higher rates. By contrast African foragers are never deterred from honey-eating by the activity of Apis defenders, thanks to their use of smoke to control bee aggression. A review of the mutualistic interaction of foragers with greater honeyguides Indicator indicator indicates that honeyguides have an innate propensity to lead humans to honey, that hominids are the most likely species responsible for the evolution of this habit, and that the habit depended on ancient human control of fire.

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