Honey and bee larvae were foods vital to human evolution and the development of early man's large brain - a notable characteristic of the human species - according to a new study by UNLV anthropologist Alyssa Crittenden.
Crittenden found that both early human ancestors and hunter-gatherer societies of today rely on honey to supplement meat and plant foods. Available almost year round, honey is packed with energy-producing nutrients essential to brain growth.
"Honey is a food that defined who we are," said Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist. "The relationship between humans and honeybees goes back much farther than we ever expected; the relationship, desire and enjoyment of honey is a part of our species."
Crittenden studies among the Hadza of Tanzania, one of the world's few remaining hunter-gatherer societies. Hunting and gathering for food characterized a way of life for humans for most of evolutionary history. Today, the Hadza forage for honey and larvae in an area where scientists believe early humans lived. Crittenden has worked alongside the Hadza for more than eight years, witnessing their search for honey, a coveted food source in their community.
Scientists have long believed meat and plant foods were primary food sources for early humans. However, Crittenden cites evidence of rock art from the Paleolithic era, which depicts human ancestors targeting beehives. She links honey consumption to historic and current hunter-gatherers of Africa, Australia and Asia, like the Hadza.
While every ape species consumes honey, an important food source among primates, Crittenden notes the advent of stone tools made it easier to tear into beehives, allowing humans to advance ahead of other species in reproduction and biology.
"Honey was the Clif Bar for early humans - an energetically dense, sweet, glucose-high food that's also peppered with fat and protein," Crittenden said. "These nutrients played a critical role in neural development and its function."
Crittenden argues that studying the evolution of the human diet and which foods people are naturally designed to consume is critical to understanding nutrition's role in combating today's diseases.
The study, "The Importance of Honey Consumption in Human Evolution," appears in the December 2011 edition of the journal Food and Foodways, volume 19, issue 4.