Today, shea butter can be found in beauty products ranging from foot creams to body wash, but the ingredient is far from a modern fad. In fact, people first started producing and using shea butter 1000 years earlier than previously believed.
The findings, as reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology, were made by anthropologists at the University of Oregon. Excavations at an archaeological site called Kirikongo in the West African country of Burkina Faso turned up fragments of nut shells salvaged from the remains of multiple layers of households. When analyzed, the carbonized shells were found to date back as far as 100 CE. Previous papers had pegged the first usage of shea butter as appearing around 1100 CE, an entire millennium later. According to Daphne E. Gallagher, a researcher from the university's department of anthropology, the new discovery shows that we still have a lot left to learn about the history of the region.
Shea butter is a thick, shortening-like paste that's made by processing a shea nut's oily interior. To get to the seed inside, the nuts have to be pounded open and separated from the shell fragments by hand. Today the antioxidant-rich product is primarily exported for use in soaps and lotions, but the first communities who made it would have used it as a source of fat for cooking.
Excavation of the Kirikongo site began a little over a decade ago. In addition to being the site of the earliest known production of shea butter, it was also once home to the first chickens in sub-Saharan Africa.