The consumption of honey produced by honey bees is as old as humanity. Throughout history, honey has been used in nutrition, but also for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Have you ever wondered where was the most ancient honey found, and how old is it? Allow me to shed some light on the subject.
The oldest honey ever found comes from Georgia. The 5,500-year-old find was unearthed from the grave of a noblewoman during archaeological excavations in 2003 near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The ceramic jars contained several types of honey, including linden and flower honey. Georgian honey is thus 2,000 years older than the ancient Egyptian honey found by British archaeologist Howard Carter during the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
History of honey making and beekeeping
Beekeeping and the use of honey for various purposes have played an important role throughout human history. It was present in the daily life, religious rituals, and mythology of various nations.
Honey in the prehistoric era
The oldest depiction of man’s beekeeping activity can be seen in ancient cave paintings. The drawing in Cueva de la Araña (Cave of the Spider) in the Spanish province of Valencia depicts a Prehistoric man collecting honey surrounded by honeybees.
Many scholars and anthropologists refer to this drawing as the first prehistoric record of beekeeping. Its age is estimated to be between 7,000 and 15,000 years.
Archaeologists have also found Mesolithic cave paintings in India showing honey collecting.
These drawings at the UNESCO World Heritage Rock Art Site of Bhimbetka were made around 15,000 to 11,000 BC, about the same time as the cave painting in Spain.
The role of honey and beekeeping in antiquity
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, reported that the Assyrians used honey for mummification, and an Assyrian cuneiform tablet describes the production of medicines made from honey.
The ancient Egyptians baked honey cakes, but honey was also used in brewing. The Egyptians used honey not only in their diet but also as a medicine. It was applied to wounds as its antiseptic effect was recognized.
Honey also served cosmetic purposes in Egypt, Cleopatra is said to have bathed in milk and honey.
The ancient Egyptians domesticated honey bees first, with hollow ceramic cylinders as hives. There are Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting bees. A beehive depiction has also been found in Thebes in the Tomb of Pabasa.
Beekeeping products such as honey, beeswax, and propolis were used for the mummification process in ancient Egypt. They also made figurines and candles out of beeswax.
Among the treasures found in Tutankhamun’s tomb was a jar of honey, which Howard Carter and his fellow archaeologists allegedly tasted. This three-thousand-year-old find proves that honey when properly stored can retain its quality for millennia without deteriorating.
This was considered to be the oldest honey found before an archeological excavation in Georgia revealed a much older one.
Talking of honey, you may also wish to read if it should be kept in the refrigerator.
Beekeeping was also present in ancient Israel. The Old Testament describes the land of Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey”.
Excavations in the Tel-Rehov Valley revealed sun-dried clay hives from the 10th to 9th centuries BC. They were capable of holding 1,000,000 honey bees.
In India, artificial hives were used around 2700 BC, and several varieties of honey were known.
Descriptions of beekeeping are also found in one of India’s epics, the 4,000-year-old Ramayana. The production of honey is also mentioned in the Indian medical literature and the Vedas.
Archaeological excavations at Harappa prove that civilizations in the Indus Valley consumed flax seeds mixed with honey between 3300 and 1300 BC.
In the Hindu religion, Bhramari was the name of the goddess of bees.
The ancient Greeks used honey to preserve fruits and make honey cakes.
Hippocrates considered honey to be effective in treating a wide variety of ailments, including fever and pain, as well as wounds and injuries.
In ancient Greek mythology, honey (nectar) was the food of the Olympian gods, and their drink was ambrosia or honey wine. Homer writes of this in Iliad and Odyssey and considers honey a gift from the gods.
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was called Melissa, or queen of bees. Her priestesses were the melissae (honey bees).
The Greek god of beekeeping was Aristaeus, who taught humankind about beekeeping.
In ancient Rome, beekeeping developed to a high standard, producing a wide variety of honey of good quality.
The ancient Romans used honey to flavor foods and beverages. They made sauces, desserts, and fish dishes with honey. Archaeological excavations have uncovered antique Roman honey cake molds made from fired clay, and cakes have also been excavated.
Honey is also included in Roman mythology. beeswax plays a central role in the tale of Icarus and Daedalus, with the help of which they made their wings.
Cupid was stung by a bee while stealing honey. According to some sources, the tip of his arrows was dipped in honey.
Honey was used for many purposes in ancient China. Honey was used for flavoring foods and beverages and to preserve fruit. There is a long tradition of making honey wine in China.
Honey has been used in traditional Chinese medicine and also for cosmetic purposes. According to tradition, honey is a medicine that cures many diseases but is not harmful to the body. Clothes soaked in melted beeswax were used to treat skin conditions.
Beekeeping was present in Mesoamerican culture even before the Spanish colonization, in Aztec and Mayan society.
Honey and beeswax obtained from native stingless bees have been used in nutrition, but also for ritual and medicinal purposes. Honey also played an essential role in trade.
In the Mayan religion, Ah Mucen Cab was the god of bees, beekeeping, and honey. He is a deity with bee wings, depicted in an ascending or descending position. Ah Mucen Cab’s temple is located in Tulum.
Honey and beekeeping in the Middle Ages
Beekeeping continued to develop in medieval Europe. Its main centers were monasteries, making candles from beeswax for church purposes. Honey and beeswax were valuable commercial items in this era.
Gingerbread-making began to spread in Europe in the 12th century. It first became popular in Germany and England but soon spread to the Scandinavian countries. The best quality gingerbread was made in Nuremberg by the Lebkuchner Guild, founded in the 1600s. You may wish to check out my gingerbread cookies recipe with honey (no molasses).
Honey production and beekeeping from the 18th century to the present day
In the 18th and 19th centuries, beekeeping developed extensively as newly developed methods allowed bees to survive honey extraction. As a result, large-scale commercial production of honey has begun in Europe and the United States.
The use of honey is as old as humanity itself. Archaeological finds, works of art, and historical documents have proven the importance of honey since the prehistoric period.
Honey and other beekeeping products have been utilized for nutrition, healing, cosmetic, and ritual purposes. It was also a valuable commodity in trade. Honey is still a popular ingredient in the world’s cuisines.
The world’s oldest honey found was excavated at a burial site near Tbilisi, Georgia.
When stored under proper conditions, honey does not spoil and has an unlimited shelf life. This is evidenced by the contents of honey pots that have survived from antiquity.
And while we are on the subject of the shelf life of honey, you may wish to read my article on why some food items spoil so fast.