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Beekeepers of the New Stone Age

Early farmers used honey and beeswax 9,000 years ago

Dec 10, 2015
Archaeological findings, such as pottery fragments, may provide information about the history of beekeeping

Traces of beeswax on ancient pottery are now providing evidence that Neolithic farmers knew how to use the products of honey bees – and they were using them around 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. In order to find out more about the origins of beekeeping, an international team of scientists analyzed approximately 6,400 antique cooking vessels from over 150 archaeological sites in the Near East and Europe. Their findings: traces of bee products that were found in pottery fragments from sites in Anatolia date as far back as 9,000 years ago.
 
This research analysis, led by chemist Mélanie Roffet-Salque from the University of Bristol, was recently published in the scientific journal “Nature“. The researchers believe that early farmers sweetened their food with honey.   Natural bee products might also have been used for medical and handcraft purposes, as well as for fuel or for religious ceremonies.
 
Throughout the centuries, knowledge about beekeeping spread northwards to Europe, together with other farming techniques. Analysis of archeological sites in the Balkans, Serbia, Romania and Greece has been especially fruitful. The first evidence of beekeeping activity in the areas of Austria and Germany dates back to 7,500 years ago. During the Neolithic Age, beekeeping techniques did not spread farther north than Denmark. There were no traces of beeswax found further north, which seems to have marked an ecological barrier for honey bees at that time.
 
Until now, experts suggested that beeswax and honey might have been used in early history – and that the origins of honey bee domestication might have been localized within Anatolia. Nevertheless, the precise time period and location of this development remained unknown until this study. Still, many questions remain without answers: Various cave paintings in Africa, for example, suggest that a number of hunting and gathering cultures collected and consumed honey long before Neolithic farmers. Therefore, research on the ancient relationship between humans and bees continues.

The study “Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers” by Mélanie Roffet-Salque et al. (University of Bristol) and an article by Ewen Callaway were published in “Nature” magazine.

Image: Christian Hans
Source: Flickr
Licence: CreativeCommons

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