Chromatography Discovers Honey in 3,500-Year-Old Pots
Jun 25 2021
Whether it’s in your coffee, on your cereal or amongst the ingredients in various sweet treats, sugar is a part of most people’s daily diets across the globe. But it hasn’t always been. Before the discovery of sugarcanes, people had to satisfy their sweet tooth with honey, collected from bees.
To date, there have been numerous discoveries suggesting that beekeeping dates back as early as 2,600 BC. But none of these discoveries have been in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Nok civilisation existed for approximately 2,000 years. Thanks to a recent discovery – and the help of chromatography – researchers have been able to shed more light on the Nok culture and their diet.
Analysing the Nok diet
Scientists at Goethe University have been studying Nok culture for over a decade. Their latest point of focus was whether they hunted and consumed animals. Because the region’s soil is too acidic to preserve bones, they had to look at other methods of exploration.
Their solution came from a 3,500-year-old clay pot. When animal products are processed and cooked in clay pots, they release chemical compounds including lipids (fatty acids), which are naturally preserved in the vessel’s pores.
Using gas chromatography, these molecular residues can be analysed to reveal whether animals were used in Nok cooking. The method is discussed in more depth in the article, ‘Gas Chromatography Troubleshooting Part I – Peak Shape Issues’.
Plants, animals and honey
Working with scientists at the University of Bristol, the Goethe team found a number of compounds pointing to the use of both plants and animals in cooking. However, there was another, more surprising result. A third of the shards they examined contained high-molecular lipids, which are typically associated with beeswax.
Understandably, the researchers can’t be sure how exactly the bees were being used. It’s possible that they were using pots to heat bees wax and separate the honey, or simply using honey as an ingredient with other plants and animals.
Alternatively, they may have been storing wax for medicinal or practical purposes. There’s even the chance that clay pots were being used as hives for the bees, which is a common practice to this day.
The 3,500-year-old pots used by Goethe and Bristol scientists are by no means the oldest pieces of evidence available in Africa. According to Professor Katharina Neumann, an archaeobotanical specialist at Goethe University, some of the continent’s oldest pottery dates back as much as 11,000 years.
With an abundance of ancient ceramic shards just waiting to be analysed using gas chromatography, there’s certainly the possibility of a lot more research – and more discoveries – in future.
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