If you eat honey or use a beeswax product this weekend, you will be following a very ancient tradition. An international study of pottery fragments from archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and north Africa shows traces of beeswax going back 9,000 years.
The researchers, based at Bristol University, examined chemicals trapped in the clay of 6,400 potsherds from 150 sites. They found the unmistakable molecular fingerprint of beeswax in many places across the Neolithic world, indicating a widespread association between honeybees and humans in prehistoric times. The results appear in the journal Nature.
The oldest chemically unambiguous trace of beeswax is in a cooking pot dating back to 7000BC from Catalhöyük in Anatolia. Intriguingly, an early wall painting at the same site shows a honeycomb-like pattern.
Mélanie Roffet-Salque, lead author, says: "The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, as this would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people. However, beeswax could have been used in its own right for various technological, ritual, cosmetic and medicinal purposes, for example to waterproof porous ceramic vessels."
Beekeeping is known to have been important in pharaonic Egypt, where wall paintings depicted hives, bees and honey — the oldest surviving example dating to about 2400BC. The Bristol team wanted to find out how widespread the use of honey and beeswax was and how far back it went.
"The lack of a fossil record of the honeybee means it's ecologically invisible for most of the past 10,000 years," says Richard Evershed, head of Bristol's organic geochemistry unit. "Although evidence from ancient Egyptian murals and prehistoric rock art suggests mankind's association with the honeybee dates back over thousands of years, when and where this association emerged has been unknown — until now. Our study . . . shows widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early farmers and pushes back the chronology of human-honeybee association to substantially earlier dates."
The research showed a northern limit for the exploitation of bees in Europe: about 57 degrees latitude. Examination of hundreds of vessels from Scotland, Norway, Sweden and Finland showed no trace of beeswax, suggesting that the climate there was too cold for bees.
Because the technique depends on analysis of clay vessels, it cannot go further back than the origins of pottery. Nor can it indicate when people started to make hives for bees rather than relying on finding wild honey. Roffet-Salque suspects that Stone Age people might have used simple hollowed-out logs, like the modern French one shown above.
Photographs: Eric Tourneret; Getty
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