Stone Age rock art, as well as ancient Egyptian iconography dating back to 2400 BCE, has hinted at our millennia-long partnership with honeybees, Apis mellifera. And now, researchers studying thousands of pottery fragments have discovered that Neolithic Old World farmers were harvesting bee products 9,000 years ago. The findings, published in Nature this week, suggest our close association goes back to the beginnings of agriculture.
When the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, European honeybee populations were finally able to expand northwards. Yet in the fossil record, honeybees have been ecologically invisible for most of the last 10,000 years. In that time, Neolithic agriculture emerged and spread out of southeastern Anatolia and the Levant (modern day eastern Mediterranean), and humans moved into areas that were well suited for honeybees too. Also, clearing up woodlands would have brought in light-demanding herbs and fruit trees, which may have offered an added positive effect. And where there’s honeybees, there’s honey and beeswax. The latter has many technological, ritual, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes.
Since beeswax consists of a complex suite of lipids with a composition that stays highly constant, it acts as a chemical fingerprint on archaeological artifacts. Beeswax residue on pottery could be the result of cooking with honey or from processing wax combs. It’s also been used as a fuel in lamps and applied as a waterproof treatment, and previous studies have detected beeswax residue in large vessels thought to be as proto-beehives. Its hydrophobic nature makes it relatively resistant to degradation.
Now, a large international team led by University of Bristol’s Mélanie Roffet-Salque and Richard Evershed examined lipid residues preserved in more than 6,400 sherds (fragments) of Neolithic pottery vessels to map out the association between honeybees and early farmers across Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. They found beeswax in more than 80 sherds investigated.
The oldest evidence for beeswax comes from Neolithic sites in Anatolia dating back to the seventh millennium B.C.E. In Central Europe, beeswax was detected in Austria, Germany, Poland, France, and Slovenia during the sixth and fifth millennium B.C.E. Additionally, the team report the first evidence for bee exploitation by Neolithic pastoralists in North Africa. An analysis of more than 70 sherds from Algeria revealed one well-preserved beeswax residue dating back to the fifth millennium B.C.E. Before this study, the earliest indication of beekeeping was a tomb mural at the sun temple of Neuserre in Abu Ghorab around 2400 BCE.
The most abundant evidence for honeybee exploitation by early farmers was found in the Balkan Peninsula: from Late Neolithic sites in Greece and the Aegean Islands to Romania and Serbia between 5800 B.C.E and 3000 B.C.E.
While honeybee exploitation was widespread, there was a northerly limit: Denmark. "The most surprising thing was the lack of evidence for beeswax use at Neolithic sites above the 57th parallel North," Roffet-Salque tells IFLScience. "It points to an ecological limit to the natural occurrence of honeybees at that time." High-latitude conditions may have been too harsh for these economically and culturally important insects.