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The Beginning of an Enduring Passion:
Prehistoric Honey Hunters
O bees, sweet bees! I said: that nearest field
Is shining white with fragrant immortelles.
Fly swiftly there and drain those honey wells.
--Helen Hunt Jackson,
A few years ago, when I was still keeping honey bees in my Tucson backyard, I always found it particularly exciting to check my hives in late spring, after the blooms had begun and the honey had started to flow. What had my bees been up to? What would the honey crop taste like? If generous winter and early spring rains had tickled the sandy desert soils and brought them to life, there could have been an explosion of wildflowers. Even with normal precipitation, the old desert standbys--velvet mesquite, foothill, and littleleaf paloverde trees--would break out in riotous bloom, attracting hungry bees from far and wide. Tens of thousands of them would plunder the flowers and carry home the precious nectar, transforming it into golden honey--a sweet, fragrant crop that I was always eager to sample.
Whenever I cracked the lid of one of my hives, the bees would rush up toward the light to see what had disrupted the cozy tranquility and comforting darkness of their nest. Selecting a middle frame fat with honey, I would ease it up and out of the box while the bees, clinging to its surfaces, ran about chaotically, confused by this rude interruption of their smooth, efficient daytime routine. Only days before, worker bees would have sealed the crinkly, textured surface of the honeycomb with the virgin white beeswax they secrete as tiny scales and form into cell caps through the workings of their mandibles.
This was the moment I had been longing for throughout the long winter months--a perfect day in late April with the first honey crop of the year ready to taste, waiting for me beneath those brilliant white caps. Since I never wore clumsy bee gloves, I was able to thrust my right forefinger deep into the comb and drag it across the frame, rupturing more than a hundred cells and releasing the glistening honey, which would stream out in thick little rivulets with the bees in hot pursuit. Withdrawing my finger, I would savor my prize, for there is nothing in the world like the taste of warm, fresh honey straight from the comb.
I am not alone in my passion for honey-making bees and their honey. From prehistoric times to the present, we humans have felt a mysterious and enduring connection to these furry little creatures and the food they produce. We have endowed them with magical properties, attributed to them surprising healing and cleansing powers, and seen in them meaningful symbols representing some of our most profoundly held beliefs.
Our fascination with bees is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. We see it in the cave paintings that our prehistoric ancestors left behind. We can read it in the rich, complex rituals and traditions that evolved to govern our relationship with these admirable insects. And we can still catch the reverberations of our instinctive connection to that part of the natural world every time a husband calls his wife "honey" or an excited child chases a buzzing bee through a bright summer afternoon. But its influence is much more far-reaching than you might imagine, extending not just to everyday moments of affection and play but to diverse cultures, religious beliefs, cuisines, and scientific study around the world. We can look for its roots in our history and, before that, our prehistory.
Thanks to petroglyphs, the spectacular painted records still visible on cave walls throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and even Australia, we know our ancestors definitely had a sweet tooth, and we know that they indulged it by embarking on arduous and often dangerous honey hunts, armed with tools that enabled them to pillage bee nests with remarkable efficiency. We don't know why cave artists put so much effort into recording these often dramatic hunts. Perhaps the honey hunts signified something more profound than the simple harvesting of an ingredient to sweeten their days--something with deep religious or ceremonial meaning. Whatever the reason, vivid paintings chronicling those honey-hunting expeditions--beautifully stylized yet powerfully real--have been found on the ceilings and walls of hundreds of caves spanning the globe.
In her recent book The Rock Art of Honey Hunters, Dr. Eva Crane, the grande dame of honey bee researchers, has collected some of the most striking examples of the cave art chronicling these prehistoric hunts. As she has vividly documented, there are a number of common elements that recur throughout this pictorial world. The honeycombs are prominently drawn, generally with great exuberance and appearing much larger than they are in real life. Bees, with or without wings, are shown flying angrily about as their nests are pillaged by the daring hunters. The hunters themselves are usually depicted either standing at the foot of a tree or cliff that harbors a bee nest or climbing long rope ladders to reach their prize. And they are typically shown naked--although to modern beekeepers, the idea of raiding a colony without protective clothing seems foolhardy at best. The honey hunters portrayed in African cave art frequently wear penis sheaths and nothing else.
When looking at photographs of some of these paintings, I can't help thinking of the brilliant frescoes that transformed the walls of medieval and Renaissance churches into graphic lessons in religious and moral history. The cave painters, who created their art thousands of years before, using mineral pigments mixed with animal fats, may also have wanted to give their work a didactic or sacred meaning. There are several clues that support this supposition: the cave walls that served as their canvases enclosed spaces large enough to have comfortably accommodated crowds of people gathered to watch or participate in ceremonial rituals; the subjects of the paintings--hunting and fertility rites--are the kind that lend themselves to sacramental reenactment; and, in addition to the honey- and animal-hunting scenes, some of the paintings show women engaged in what seems to be sacred dancing, groups of archers led by a priest or shaman wearing a large headdress, and warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
I'd love to know what lessons, if any, our forebears found embedded in the painted chronicles of their honey hunts. Did the rituals of the hunt serve to enlighten them or to give them spiritual guidance? Did they inspire these nomadic clans to strive for the same kind of efficient, productive social organization that the bees had so wonderfully evolved? And what role did honey play in their daily lives? Was it a key ingredient in their primitive cuisine, a medicine used to cure a number of ills, or simply eaten raw as a palate-pleasing, energy-supplying snack after a long, hard day hunting and gathering?
Despite the dedicated work of many archaeologists, we'll probably never know the answers to these questions. But based on hunting scenes found in caves separated by thousands of miles (and executed with uncanny similarity), we can safely say that plundering bee nests has been an important human activity for many millennia, all over the globe. In fact, there are places in the world today where the ancient rituals of those long-ago honey hunters are still practiced virtually unchanged. In the rainforests of Malaysia, the remote valleys of Nepal, and the vast Australian outback, honey-hunting clans set out on expeditions so similar to those depicted in prehistoric cave art that those paintings might well have served as their primers. We will actually travel to Malaysia to witness some of those rituals as they unfold today. But first, let's travel back in time, to a cave that contains one of the most vivid of the ancient honey-hunting paintings.
We are at La Arana--the Cave of the Spider. It is one of many caves and prehistoric shelters honeycombing the limestone mountains of what is now the province of Valencia, near the city of the same name, on the east coast of Spain. Six thousand years ago, when the paintings at La Ara–a were executed, Europe had just entered the First Neolithic Age, which lasted for another thousand years.
Though we tend to think of the people who used these caves as cave dwellers, they were actually nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived in extended families or small bands and stayed in the rock shelters only for brief periods as they traveled with the seasons. The caves were often located in hillsides that offered wide views of animal migration routes and, as a result, prime hunting opportunities. The caves also provided protection from the elements and probably from natural predators and human enemies as well. Beyond their role as temporary sanctuaries, they served as burial chambers and meeting places for clans scattered over hundreds of miles. Thus the caves helped facilitate communication and intermarriage among these dispersed peoples.
The La Arana cave, explored in 1924 by Spanish archaeologist Hern‡ndez Pacheco, is set in a landscape of wild natural beauty, with rugged slopes, deep gullies, and clear-running rivers. Blackened soot on the low ceiling near the entrance indicates that early humans took shelter there, lighting fires to provide warmth and cook their meals, and recording the events of daily life in paintings on the interior walls.
Let's imagine a cold, damp winter afternoon six thousand years ago in the cave of La Arana. A small band of men, women, and children has gathered around a roaring blaze at the mouth of the cave to recount their day's activities, which include not just hunting and gathering but also crafting and maintaining a wide variety of tools, stitching animal skins together with bone needles to make warm clothing to fight off the bitter cold of winter, nursing infants, and preparing meals. Implements essential to their survival lay scattered about and include hand axes, cleavers, and scrapers to work hide and shape wood. Barbed harpoons and spears, made from bone and antler and decorated with carved animal designs as well as various ornamental pendants, can also be seen. The tools are well made, for this is a period of great innovation. Change is occurring at an increasingly rapid rate and will continue over the next centuries as agriculture takes root, the nomads settle in villages, a hunter-gatherer economy transitions to a producing one, and a whole new way of life is born. In fact, our friends in the cave may have already begun rudimentary farming to supplement the fruits of their hunting and gathering expeditions.
As the day wanes, dinner is served at La Arana. Items on the menu include reindeer, bison, ibex, horse, and red deer. And the piece de resistance is honey, dripping thick and golden from the comb.
Like nearly everything our ancestors used, honey had to be pilfered from the natural world around them--right from the nests of the bees themselves. Except for a small number of tropical wasps and ants, no other creatures collect and store concentrated reserves of sugar the way honey bees do. In Spain, the honey would have come from the European honey bee (Apis mellifera).
The challenges of harvesting honey were daunting, as we can see in the painting for which the Cave of the Spider is best known--a compelling rendition of the rigors and rituals of the honey hunt. Using a concavity in the rock wall to represent a bee nest, the painter drew a man climbing what appears to be a rope ladder and being attacked by a swarm of enormous bees defending their honey stores. The honey hunter is simply sketched, a fragile-looking stick figure, yet we sense skill, strength, and determination as he balances precariously on his flimsy ladder, enduring the painful stings and angry harassment of the bees. We also sense that something mysterious, something we can't quite grasp, is going on here. There is an almost spiritual quality to the painting, which suggests a tacit understanding between the bees and the barbarian who is attacking their stronghold. This is not simply a callous plundering of goods, a cold-blooded raid. It's as if we are witnessing a sacred contest, a battle of wills between equals. Perhaps the special relationship between humans and bees, which was to evolve into so many elaborate rituals and traditions over the millennia, had already begun to take shape.
The cave paintings leave no doubt that honey hunting has been going on for thousands of years. Long before the first humans descended from the thorny acacia trees of the African savannahs and began a new life as tool-making, fully bipedal primates, Malaysian honey bears, honey guide birds, and South African honey badgers were all plundering bee nests. But it was the ingenuity of our early ancestors that turned the honey hunt into a highly ritualized--and effective--activity. It probably didn't take long for prehistoric hunters and gatherers to discover that the nests of certain highly social bees--bumblebees (Bombus), stingless bees (Melipona and Trigona), and honey bees (Apis mellifera and other species in the genus Apis)--contained plentiful reserves of honey. And once they had figured that out, it was doubtless a short step to learning how to attack and exploit these tasty, energy-rich targets.
No one has been able to trace the evolution of the human sweet tooth, which is certainly at the root of our passion for bees and honey. We do know that our ape and chimpanzee relatives have a well-developed taste for sugar and aren't shy about availing themselves of any opportunity to gorge on it. And we also know that besides the honey from bees, the only other concentrated sources of sugar available to early humans would have been fruits, berries, and certain tropical grasses. So the honey stored by bees was a prize well worth enduring the stings delivered by the guardians of the nests. Other "spoils of war" from the nests included the juicy, protein-rich brood, consisting of bee larvae and pupae, along with equally nutritious pollen. It is little wonder that so many kinds of mammals and birds in the prehistoric world developed a taste for honey and young bees, along with the necessary skills for locating bee nests and breaking into their well-stocked pantries.
La Arana is just one of many caves in Spain where we can see paintings that memorialize our species' long-standing craving for honey. Several rock shelters in Teruel province in eastern Spain depict outraged bees that seem to issue forth from the rock itself to attack the greedy honey hunters. At Barranc Fondo in eastern Spain, a petroglyph painted about the same time as the one in La Ara–a shows at least five stick-figure honey hunters climbing a ladder leaning against a large tree. The spirits of large grazing animals and other creatures hover around the top of the tree, lending an air of magic and otherworldliness to the scene. But then in a note of earthy realism, we see one hapless hunter tumbling backward off the ladder, arms flailing in the air. Executed in black, which was derived from charcoal, and red, from ocher, the painting also depicts at least eleven other hunters gathered at the foot of the ladder, waiting for the stitched-hide honey buckets to descend from on high. This scene of hunters anticipating the arrival of their hard-earned plunder is virtually identical to what we will witness in Malaysia when we accompany modern-day honey hunters on an actual expedition.
From the Hardcover edition.