According to recent research, humans have had a working relationship with honeybees for a very long time. In fact, humans have been utilizing the products of honeybees for close to 9,000 years, based on data from the new study.
The anthropologists studied chemical residues on pots that have been dated to around 7000 BC, and found traces of beeswax in several cases, making it clear that the earliest farmers in the UK and across Europe knew of the value of bees. However, there is no sign of honey residue, so researchers can’t be certain whether the Neolithic people just used beeswax or also consumed honey.
The new beeswax on pottery study was published in the academic journal Nature on November 11th.
Statement from lead researcher
“It seems that the first farmers in every single area of Europe were exploiting beeswax from the beginning of farming,” commented study researcher Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, UK.
More on new study on honeybees in prehistory
The prehistory of honeybees was really a secondary investigation for Roffet-Salque, who has been involved in a long-term project with University of Bristol biogeochemist Richard Evershed to analyze pottery shards for chemical traces of food, cosmetics or other materials. After examining over 6,400 pottery fragments, Evershed and Roffet-Salque identified a few dozen shards that contain beeswax residues. Honey degrades much more rapidly than beeswax and does not leave sufficient residue to be detected by current methods.
That said, it is quite possible, even likely, Neolithic people consumed honey, and probably used beeswax for cooking, or for making cosmetics and fuel, according to the researchers.
Of note, the earliest find of beeswax-lined pottery dated back to around 7000 BC in modern Turkey. The archaeological sites where the beeswax pottery was found are also the sites of the oldest-known pottery in Eurasia. Roffet-Salque noted this means that the presence of beeswax apparently spread along with the presence of farming, from the Near East to the north and west, eventually coming to the modern-day UK at around 3500 BC.
Beeswax residues have also been found on pottery shards in northwest Turkey as far back as 5500 BC, and in the Balkans between 5500 BC and 4500 BC. Other archaeological sites in Greece between 5800 BC and 3000 BC yielded whole pots that once held beeswax. It turns out that the Balkan Peninsula was the area where beeswax was most common with 5.5% of 1,915 Stone Age pot shards from the area having traces of beeswax.
Moving further north, Neolithic peoples in Austria and Germany were taking advantage of bee products by at least 5500 BC, the researchers determined, and bee products were known in France at around the same time. So far the team has identified seven pottery fragments with beeswax on them in southern Britain.
The most northerly location where pottery shards showing beeswax residues were found was in southern Denmark.
“Above 57 degrees latitude we’ve not found any beeswax in pots at all, and we’ve tried hard,” Roffet-Salque noted. “We’ve analyzed something like 1,000 shards from Scandinavia and Scotland and we found lots of lipids and animal fats, but no evidence for beeswax.”
She continued to say this was probably because it was just too cold for bees to live above 57 degrees latitude.