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Our Ancient Ancestors Probably Loved Honey Too

Residue scraped from pottery shows humans used bee products as long as 8,500 years ago

Humans may have raided wild honeybees' nests during the Stone Age -- this hive in a hollow log hive from Cévennes (France) reveals the details of the circular comb architecture ancient humans would have discovered. (Eric Tourneret via NPG)
smithsonian.com

For thousands of years, people have relied on honeybees for many valuable products—from honey to wax, pollen to venom.

Ancient Egyptians bestowed their pharaohs the title "Bee King" (among others), thanks to the extensive beekeeping in Lower Egypt that kept the land flowing with honey. Images in tombs show cylindrical hives dating as far back as the 7th century B.C. ​​

Gathering honey from wild bee colonies dates even further back—with some of the earliest evidence recorded in a rock painting from around 6,000 B.C. in Valencia, Spain that depicts a honey hunter raiding a hive. Yet how common and widespread this practice was remained unclear, until now, according to a new study published today in the journal Nature.

"Honeybees have been quite invisible throughout the archaeological record because they’re so tiny and disappear very quickly," lead author Mélanie Roffet-Salque tells Chelsea Harvey for The Washington Post.

But instead of turning to the fossil record or ancient rock art, Roffet-Salque and her team relied on chemical evidence trapped within in Neolithic pottery. Beeswax is a complex substance, rich not only in waxes but in lipids and other organic molecules, giving it a unique chemical fingerprint that withstands the ravages of time. 

The researchers looked for the telltale traces of the beeswax on more than 6,400 pottery pieces used by Neolithic farmers. ​The thought was that the pottery could have been used to extract honey from plundered honeycomb or the wax itself would have proved useful as fuel for lamps. These wax-containing vessels could even have served as early artificial beehives, to keep the industrious insects and their sugary concoction nearby—a rare source of sweetness for ancient people. 

The oldest evidence they found dates back to 7,000 B.C. in Anatolia, or Asia Minor. One Stone Age site in southeastern Turkey called Çayönü Tepesi, yielded exceptionally well-preserved beeswax residue from that time period, according to the paper.

The team found abundant evidence for humans using honeybee products in the Balkans, dating from roughly 5,500 B.C. to 4,500 B.C. and from North Africa from 5,000 B.C. The farthest north the researchers were able to find wax residues was Denmark. 

"We think it's the ecological limit of honeybees in prehistory," Roffet-Salque tells Stephanie Pappas for Live Science. The climate of the time likely kept honeybees from making it to much greater latitudes. 

People's relationship with bees only grew closer over time with bee keeping and some domestication. These days these buzzy social insects are vital to pollinating crops as well as providing their tasty honey. In the face of some serious bee population declines, hopefully this millennia-long relationship will endure.

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