In Which We Learn About Palm Wine

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Researchers announced earlier this week that chimpanzees around the town of Bossou, in southeastern Guinea, occasionally steal palm wine from local harvesters. I covered the story for Discover‘s D-brief blog (which is one of the coolest places on the Internet, by the way). Go check it out. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Awesome.

My D-brief story focused on the chimpanzee research, which is hopefully the first step toward some pretty cool insights about primate evolution. In the process of covering the story, however, lead researcher Kimberley Hockings shared some insight on the palm wine harvest. It was a tangent from my original story, but I couldn’t resist sharing a little glimpse of another culture. Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist – so here’s the story behind the story.

Many species of palm trees around the world supply sap which is fermented into some form of palm wine, but the people of Bossou harvest and drink the fermented sap of the raffia palm. When a tree matures, the local yohpami, or palm wine harvester, climbs fifty feet or so up to the crown of the tree on a bamboo ladder, where he (the yohpami is always male) cuts at a place on the crown called the yohle, or “mouth of the wine.”

“For the first 4-7 days the yohpami must cut a bit off the yohle each morning and evening until the palm wine comes,” Hockings told me. When the sap begins to flow, the yohpami leaves a plastic container in the crown of the tree to collect the sap, covered with leaves to protect against dirt and insects. Hockings, who talked with Bossou’s yohpami during her research, told me, “He said that if the container is not covered it becomes cold and the taste changes.”

As I mentioned in the D-brief story, raffia palm sap ferments really quickly, so it’s ready to drink almost as soon as it emerges from the tree. The yohpami comes to collect the sap early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most people in Bossou like their palm wine straight from the tree, unprocessed, and very fresh – within 24 hours of harvesting. “98% of people prefer newly harvested wine,” Hockings told me. After the first day, the sap ferments so much that it makes the wine stronger, but gives it a vinegary taste. By the third day, the wine separates into water, thicker sap, and sediments, and it has to be shaken before drinking.

It seems that the local chimpanzees prefer fresh palm wine, too – they drink it right in the treetops, after all. Hockings said that the yohpami doesn’t seem to mind much. “As it happens rarely, it is not considered a huge problem, but of course the palm wine harvester will not be happy about it due to a loss of income,” she said. “At Bossou local people are very tolerant towards the chimpanzees. Traditionally chimpanzees were a totem and could not be hurt (even in retaliation for crop feeding).”

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