A byproduct of nuts from the shea tree, shea butter works as well as it does in part because it contains an unusually high level of vitamin E, a natural antioxidant alongside several other bioactive nutrients.
However, whilst it is often discussed as a relatively new discovery, archaeological and anthropological findings of a site in west Burkina Faso suggest that shea butter has been used in some form for nearly 2000 years
The Kirikongo site is a surprisingly well-preserved historical settlement that dates from around 100AD to 1500AD, providing a surprisingly clear record of how shea trees were planted, how the nuts were processed and why they were used.
Shea butter is native to Central Africa, as far west as Senegal and as far east as South Sudan and parts of Ethiopia, with distinct differences between the consistency and composition of eastern and western variants.
Whilst primarily known as a skincare product in the West, shea butter is used for a variety of different purposes in Africa, from haircare, candle making, as part of traditional percussion instrument making, and as a cooking oil.
The latter use appears to be the reason why shea trees were cultivated on the Kirikongo site, but what is fascinating is that through the examination of different layers of shea nut shells and other plants found nearby, researchers found a sophisticated and sustainable agricultural system.
That tradition has continued to this very day, with shea butter being used more frequently for its moisturising and emollient properties which help to soothe the skin.
Shea nuts are a vital part of Burkina Faso’s economy, to the point that people living in the village of Burkinabé nicknamed shea nuts “women’s gold”, with cooperatives such as Shea Yeleen helping to empower female shea butter producers.