Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Honey Gatherer

I have been known to drive 200 miles out of my way for a cupcake and sit through hours of anthropology classes to gather one morsel of chocolate lore. So how did I miss such an icon in the history of sweets?


A passenger in a topless Jeep, I watched the quiet, fragrant countryside slip by on a nighttime drive through the heart of Spain to Denia, on the Eastern coast. We sped along, sleepy but earnest to make the morning ferry departure to Ibiza. The deep blue night was dotted here and there with orange-lit stone castles, beauties on their perches that I fashioned as the backdrop to scenes of Don Quixote and other characters from the tomes of Spanish literature.

As I conjured stories of that gentleman from La Mancha I was unaware of another famous man of the region, the "Man of Bicorp". He was just miles away, hidden in the dark.

Man of Bicorp, from Wikipedia.
The Man of Bicorp is a prehistoric figure painted on the wall of a cave near Valencia, Spain. Across this region there are hundreds, even thousands of ancient cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. They portray animal figures and oftentimes curious geometric design. What makes our man unique is his activity -- he is gathering honey in one of the earliest known depictions of this craft.

Our man hangs from lianas or vines to get at the large hive situated inside a rock crevice. Bees swarm as he holds a basket ready for the harvest of nature's sweetest reward. Another human figure waits on the ground below, basket in hand. It is a touching human representation of desire and ingenuity.

But was this pair just after the honey?

Not likely. Almost every element of the honeycomb could be used or eaten. What use did the ancients find for the wax from the hives? Were the bee larvae a milky delicacy? The traces of these specifics are lost, but the image of our honey hunters identifies a piece of the story to launch our imaginations.


Cave entrance to Es Culleram in Formentera.
Ancient rock art and cave dwelling sites across the area are collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The honey hunters' home is known as Cuevas de la AraƱa, or the Spider Caves.

For travel in SW Europe, do a little research on paleolithic cave art and GO. A venture into a painted cave gives a sense of prehistoric art from the vantage point of the artist and/or those who lived in the cave. It's not a museum or a reproduction (except in cases of the most popular caves such as Altamira and Lascaux), and to see two dimensional photographs of the artwork minimally captures its beauty.

Here's what to look for:

{ The geographic location of the caves } - Cave art is typically in caves that were inhabited by early man, and as you would want for your home they are often situated near water, at some height, and with a view of the surroundings. Just getting there and stepping in will make you feel very Indiana Jones.

View from Es Culleram cave entrance.
{ The location and size of the artwork within the cave } - Art appears on walls and ceilings, and the work can be close to the entrance, along passages, in small chambers, or even tiny dark spaces in the depths of the cave.

{ The degree to which the surface itself is used as part of the composition } - In our honey gatherer scene, the artist used the natural contours of the rock face to place the painted hive inside a stone relief. This treatment of surface character, color, and line is common and used to great effect.

{ The technique of the artist } - Scenes are engraved or painted, the paint procured from charcoal or natural dyes. Stylistically there is enough variation that you will find yourself hunting for the next painted cave just to see what's in store.

Resources and recommendations:

Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World

Honey and Dust

Lonely Planet Spain (Full Color Country Travel Guide)

"Make yourself honey and the flies will devour you." 
~ Cervantes, from Don Quixote

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