March 23rd 2021

Without honey, you have nothing to eat.

Henriette Stierlin


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Image credit: Ayore man gathering wild honey from a tree (1958). © Archivo B. Fischermann

The Völkerkundemuseum of the University of Zürich recently opened an interdisciplinary exhibition about the Ayoreode a South American indigenous group, their special knowledge of bees and honey. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Maike Powroznik (VKM) and Dr. Henriette Stierlin, guest curator. The exhibition is open until January 2022.
Ayoreode are an indigenous group living in the Chaco Boreal divided in two South American countries: Bolivia and Paraguay. They roamed in the forest of their territory until the mid-20th century (first permanent contact in 1948), when the pressure by society due to many new factors (expanding agriculture and infrastructure, colonization, oil exploration) forced them to contact national societies.

They were called "bàrbaros" in the region, because of their conflictive and often violent relationship with society.
When you read any of the reports or studies about Ayoreode, a recurrent element that stands out is about their special connection to bees and honey. It comes again, and again.

“Without honey, you have nothing to eat.” It did not last long to find the title for the exhibition. An astonishing yet compelling sentence that was used to describe the culture of the Ayoreode by the Bolivian society.

I have found it in a regional report dated in 1980, and my colleague thought it would perfectly describe our theme. It has a bewildered tone, as to a peculiar fact. I came across it later again in the book of Wagner (1975), a North American missionary writer who related the missionary history of the settling down the Ayoreode.

He describes that despite a successful farming program which produced an abundance of food, the Ayoreode would complain: “`There is no food! We want honey!` To them, honey was synonymous with food. Off they would go to the woods, angry with Bill because there was no honey.” (Wagner 1975:157).

His sentence did not have a positive meaning, more of frustration. The missionaries moved in an unchartered territory: they wanted to bring the Gospel to “stone-age” Indians, but they faced the practical aspects of sedentarization of an entirely different culture, with a reciprocal cultural misunderstanding and shock, even in such small things as food. “But (in) the early years, (as a child) when I went with the missionaries, I couldn' t eat everything, because I only ate what my stomach accepted.” (Comai 2006)

The Ayoreo did not accept the food offered by the missionaries, not even for free. They kept going back to the woods for game and honey, no matter that it was more difficult or complicated.

Honey occupied a central role in Ayoreo food system, both in a practical and in mythical level. As environment, the Chaco is an arid and not too inviting area with difficult access to varied sources of food and to water which is oft scarcely available.

Food has mostly vegetable origin, and some smaller game. However, honey is produced in big quantities by native (stingless) bees. Most stingless bees (Meliponini) produce honey-like sweet substances.

Ayoreode live not only in a climate sensitive area, but also their cosmovision is full of taboos and prohibition –according to age and gender- that regulates their relationship to the surrounding world, to Nature.

An ethnobotanical study describes that Ayoreode use significantly smaller percentage of the available food sources in their area than the other groups in the Chaco, due to this complicated regulatory system that allows them what to consume. 
With the disruption of nomadic life, it became even more complicated due to the current loss of cultural factors, of numerous practices and knowledge relating to the consumption of these species. Yet honey defies most of the difficulties, it is available in the whole year and in quantities, and regarding its consume there are relatively few rules.

On a mythical level, honey belongs to the main foods, contrasting salt with whom shares a similar mythical origin. In the different versions of origin myths, honey belongs to the civilized foods, like agriculture, yet a freely and generously available source to everybody in nomad life.

At the most important feast of the year, the celebration of the renewal of cycle, the beginning of the year, offered to Asonjà, the mythical and most feared Nature goddess, the Nightjar, honey gathering plays a significant role as activity and honey as an offering to Her. Its execution is ruled by several taboos.Honey appears in many myths in several forms. As food everybody gathers it, because in the ayoreo worldview every animal, thing and concept were human beings at the mythical beginning before they were transformed to their actual state and form. Nevertheless, many mythical characters are positively described by their honey gathering ability, and it oft rivals with their hunting skills.

In a myth collected by Sebag, small children could be fed with honey, when their mother die or for some reason unable to breastfeed them, otherwise they would be killed, lacking the skills to survive. “What are we going to do with all these children? What will become of them? They have no mother, and no one give them milk. At first, they tried feeding them with water, but this was no good. Then they tried feeding them honey and the children were able to survive. That is why today when a mother dies leaving a small child behind, we give it honey.” (Wilbert- Simoneau 1998:370)

Free roaming, nomadic life also meant on the mythical level blending in with Nature in a peaceful existence. “In the civilized life we live a momentary, temporary life, and there (is the) reason, because in the past our ancestors lived a life of longer (perspective), of more permanence.” (Comai 2006)

The difference between free roaming to settled existence was also fast visible and measurable in the environmental impact, already in the 1950s. The old extractive methods of honey gathering extinguished extremely fast the bees around the settlements, barring Ayoreode from their favorite food. “When four hundred Indians settled in Zapoco, it was not long before there were no turtles or honey within miles of the camp. If they were to continue living there, some substitute would have to be found.” (Wagner 1975:152).

The missionaries tried to remedy this process, for example Pencille (SAM missionary) brought western honeybees (Apis sp.) to the settlement in the 1950s, but he was unsuccessful in introducing them, as Comai (2006) an elderly ayoreo man said: "(This honey was not for the Ayoreos, because) the Ayoreo was already strong, it could already go honey-hunting, and he could be fed from wild honey.

The Ayoreo did not like beehive honey, it was extremely strong and soon one impaled. One can put his hand in one, two and three times, and that is it. It was very different. It was (only) for the consumption of missionaries."

He added, laughing: "I did not like (this honey), but I ate it with bread and `peanut butter`, marmalade. It was tasty like this."