Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum
In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.
My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent. Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.
Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.
The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.
Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.
More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.
The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.
In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.
My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.
For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.
The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.
Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.
Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.
Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.
Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.
Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.
Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.