MADRID – The longstanding cooperation between humans and bees began in the Middle East some 9,000 years ago when the first farmers ushered in the most revolutionary period in prehistory: the Neolithic, according to a study in the journal Nature.
Until now, scientists had been unable to determine when humans first showed an interest in bees and in the honey and wax they produce.
An international team led by the University of Bristol has determined that humans in the Anatolia region of present-day Turkey began using beeswax some 9,000 years ago.
Researchers, including specialists from Spain’s Universidad del Pais Vasco, Universidad de Cantabria and Institucion Mila y Fontanals, studied more than 6,400 potsherds from archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, to develop a spatial and temporal picture of the use of beeswax.
The oldest evidence was found in pieces coming from Neolithic deposits in Anatolia, which is also home to the Çatalhöyük site where archaeologists found an ancient pictorial representation of a beehive.
“Beeswax is easily identified because it has a digital marker, a distinct biological fingerprint,” study co-author Alfonso Alday, a professor at Universidad del Pais Vasco, told EFE. “It is a complex of very specific lipids, resistant to degradation and they have been identified in the study.”
“This study proves in a direct way that humans were using beeswax several thousand years earlier than previously thought,” he said. “They may have used it as adhesive or agglutinative for tools or instruments, to waterproof surfaces in ceramics, for lighting or rituals and for medical or cosmetic purposes,” he said.
The association between humans and bees is contemporaneous with the beginnings of agriculture, he said.
“When humans turned to agriculture they started clearing the woods to expanding pastures or land under cultivation and thus, unwittingly, they extended the bees’ habitat with meadows and flowers,” Alday said.
The study shows that “bees have followed the geographical expansion of agriculture, and as agriculture spread from the Middle East to Europe, bees found new and better habitat to develop,” he said.