We Are What We Ate

Alyssa Crittenden: How honey helped to make us human…. 

Dr Alyssa Crittenden
Dr Alyssa Crittenden


‘Most discussions of the evolution of the human diet implicate meat as the proverbial smoking gun responsible for many hallmarks of human evolution such as brain expansion, cooperation, family formation, pair bonding, tool making, and even selection of marriage partners. Some alternative interpretations discuss the importance of plant foods, like tubers (starchy underground storage organs – similar to potatoes), and suggest that the collection and consumption of plant foods is what made us human. The debate of the significance of meat versus potatoes, so to speak, appears to be rooted in deep evolutionary time. More recently, however, there has been a trend in incorporating a wider range of foods in evolutionary reconstructions of the human diet.

With the popularity of the “Paleolithic Diet” and “caveman cooking” steadily on the rise, it is increasingly important to turn to different lines of evidence to inform our thinking on the history of humans and their food. As new lines of evidence converge, it is becoming clear that the ancestral human diet was varied and included a combination of both animal protein and fat as well as plant foods; a Paleolithic menu that included meat, potatoes – and dessert!

It appears that the human sweet tooth has a long history in human evolution. New research proposes that honey may have been important in human evolution. Upper Paleolithic (8,000 – 40,000 years ago) rock art from all around the world depicts images of early humans collecting honey. The images range from figures climbing ladders to access hives residing high in trees to figures smoking out hives filled with honeycomb. Honey and bee larvae are important foods consumed by many populations of hunters and gatherers worldwide. Foragers in Latin America, Asia, Australia, and Africa include honey and bee larvae as major components of their diet.

The Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, the population with whom I work, even list honey as their number one preferred food item!

Hadza hunter-gatherer

The Hadza consume honey and larvae of both stingless bees and stinging bees, including the African killer bee (Apis mellifera). The Hadza locate the hives with the assistance of a wild African bird, the aptly named honey guide (Indicator indicator). The honey guide bird and the Hadza honey hunter communicate back and forth through a series of whistles and the bird guides the honey hunter, tree by tree, to the bee hive. Once the honey hunter has located the hive, he pounds wooden pegs ito the trunk of the tree, climbs to the top where the hive is located, chops into the tree to expose the hive, and smokes it out by placing burning brush into the opening. Smoking the hive acts to pacify the bees by dulling the senses of the guard bees who protect the opening of the hive. The bees see the smoke as a habitat threat and focus on collecting enough honey to rebuild their hive elsewhere. This allows the hunter to collect the honeycomb without being stung by the killer bees. The honey guide bird patiently waits outside of the hive and as the honey hunter obtains his honeycomb prize, the honey guide bird is rewarded with its delicious prize – wax from the comb and bees.

Hadza man up tree

Honey is a highly nutritious (and delicious!) food source, composed primarily of fructose and glucose. Combined with larvae, which is high in protein, fat, and B vitamins, honeycomb is nature’s energy bar. The ethnographic cross-cultural evidence of honey consumption, combined with depictions of honey hunting portrayed in rock art around the world, suggest that honey has long been been a part of human history. Early humans, and their expanding brains, would have greatly benefited from consuming honey and bee larvae because the human brain needs glucose to fuel the high metabolic demands of neural development and function. The Paleolithic diet likely included meat, plant foods, and honeycomb – one of the sweet secrets to human evolution!’
The Importance of Honey Consumption in Human Evolution. Food and Foodways
– Clip from an upcoming documentary on the Hadza (the population with whom I work)
David Attenborough follows a honeyguide bird

Dr Alyssa Crittenden is Lincy Assistant Professor of Anthropology (and honey enthusiast!), University of Nevada, Las Vegas