“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,” said lead researcher Richard Evershed, professor at University of Bristol in England.
The study involved large scale investigation of sites across Europe, the Near East and Northern Africa.
The researchers gathered evidence of preserved beeswax in pottery vessels from an archaeological site in Turkey, dating to the seventh millennium BC — the oldest evidence yet for the use of bee products by Neolithic farmers.
“The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, as this would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people,” explained study lead author Melanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol.
“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,” Roffet-Salque noted.
This study gathered evidence for the presence of beeswax in the pottery vessels of the farmers by investigating chemical components trapped in the clay fabric of more than 6,000 potsherds from over 150 archaeological sites.
The distinctive chemical ‘fingerprint’ of beeswax was detected at multiple Neolithic sites across Europe indicating just how widespread the association between humans and honeybees was in prehistoric times.
“Our study is the first to provide unequivocal evidence, based solely on a chemical ‘fingerprint’, for the palaeoecological distribution of an economically and culturally important animal. It shows widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early farmers and pushes back the chronology of human-honeybee association to substantially earlier dates,” Evershed said.
The findings appeared in the journal Nature.