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2 December 2015
Early farmers exploited the honeybee 8,500 years ago

Bees have been a resource for humans as far back as the Stone Age, according to research from the University of Bristol. Prehistoric rock art has previously been inferred to portray honey hunters, yet the association between early farmers and the honeybee remained uncertain.
     By investigating chemical components trapped in the clay fabric of more than 6,000 potsherds from over 150 archaeological sites, this new study has gathered evidence for the presence of beeswax in the pottery vessels of the first farmers of Europe, indicating just how widespread this association was in prehistoric times. For example, beeswax was present in cooking pots from an archaeological site in Turkey dating to the seventh millennium BCE - the oldest evidence yet for the use of bee products by Neolithic farmers.
     Dr Melanie Roffet-Salque, lead author of the paper, said: "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."
     Professor Evershed said: "The lack of a fossil record of the honeybee means it's ecologically invisible for most of the past 10,000 years. Our study is the first to provide unequivocal evidence, based solely on a chemical 'fingerprint', for the palaeo-ecological 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."
     The lack of evidence for beeswax use at Neolithic sites north of the 57th parallel points to an ecological limit to the natural occurrence of honeybees at that time.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (11 November 2015)

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