Europe's first farmers exploited honeybees

12 November 2015

Neolithic people were harvesting from honeybee nests at least 8,500 years ago, researchers have discovered.

The scientists, partly funded by NERC, analysed the residues on more than 6,000 samples of prehistoric pottery from more than 150 archaeological sites spread across Europe and the Near East. The distinctive chemical signature of beeswax appears in around 83 of them; only 33 of these were known before this paper. This is the first unequivocal evidence of a close and long-lived relationship between early farmers and honeybees.

Honeybee hive in a hollow log

A honeybee hive in a hollow log in the Cévennes, France. Copyright: Eric Tourneret.

We don't know if the wax came from wild or domesticated bees. But the findings, published in Nature, nevertheless provide a remarkable insight into how people lived in early farming communities thousands of years ago - during the seventh millennium BC at the oldest site examined, Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey, through to the fourth millennium BC at sites in France and southern England. The most abundant beeswax traces came from the Balkans.

Dr Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol, the paper's lead author, said:

"The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, which 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."

This isn't the first use of chemical analysis to find traces of early honeybee exploitation by farmers, but these results push back the earliest date at which we know this was happening by at least a millennium. Evidence on early people's relationship with bees is sparse. Cave art from the Palaeolithic has been interpreted as depicting people hunting for honey, but this isn't certain. The first conclusive evidence of beekeeping comes from Egyptian murals that were made around 2400BC.

The study also provides the first insights into where honeybees were found in the period. Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, one of the paper's authors and head of the lab that analysed the samples, commented:

"The chemical analysis lets us look at an animal with no fossil record and understand where it was living at different times. You don't find bits of bees lying around Neolithic campsites, but it turns out that if you look at a hundred potsherds there's a good chance you'll find that some have traces of beeswax. For the first time we can get an idea of how these bees were distributed across the region."

The researchers examined pottery finds from Scotland and Scandinavia, but there were no traces of beeswax from further north than modern-day Denmark. This suggests conditions beyond that point were too cold for honeybees to survive during the Neolithic. The ice sheets were still retreating at the end of the last ice age, and presumably bees were expanding northwards to colonise the newly-available habitats.

The research provides the first hard evidence that people in Neolithic North Africa were exploiting bees. It also settles the long-standing debate over whether honeybees came to Britain in prehistory or more recently, showing that they were almost certainly here several thousand years ago.

Further information

Tamera Jones
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