Bee-lieve it or not: people liked honey back in the Stone Age

A colony of Italian worker bees congregate outside their hive while pollinating a blueberry field near Columbia Falls, Maine, in this file photo taken June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/Files

Murals from ancient Egypt’s vibrant New Kingdom era depicting bees and honey amid scenes of everyday life some 4,400 years ago provide early evidence of people using of beehive products. But humans have been using the stuff far longer than that.

Scientists said on Wednesday they have found evidence of beeswax in pottery made by Stone Age people from early farming cultures in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, including in cooking pots from a site in eastern Turkey dating to about 8,500 years ago.

“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,” organic geochemist Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol in Britain said.

The beeswax was present in the pottery because these people may have been using honey, which bears traces of beeswax, or coating the inside of pots with beeswax for waterproofing, Roffet-Salque said.

“It is clear that Stone Age people knew their environment very well and were exploiting various natural resources such as beeswax, but also tree resins and tars,” Roffet-Salque added.

The most obvious reason for making use of the honeybee would be for honey, “a rare sweetener for prehistoric people,” Roffet-Salque said.

“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 or soften brittle birch bark tar to make glue,” Roffet-Salque said.

Honey could not be detected directly because it is mainly composed of sugars that would not survive thousands of years at archaeological sites. “Detecting beeswax in pots allows us to say that early farmers were exploiting hive products: beeswax and honey,” Roffet-Salque said.

The ancient Egyptian murals, prehistoric rock art and other evidence had already shown humankind’s use of the honeybee dated back many millennia, but how long and how widespread had been uncertain.

The researchers examined chemical compounds trapped in the clay of more than 6,000 potsherds from more than 150 Old World sites.

Pottery examined from more northerly sites, specifically above the 57th parallel, for example from Scotland and Scandinavia, were found to lack beeswax.

This suggests honeybees did not live in those locales at that time perhaps due to the harsher, high-latitude conditions, University of Bristol biogeochemist Richard Evershad said.

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