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Bees sweetened early farmers' lives: chemical traces on pottery point to broad use of wax, honey.

Here's the latest buzz on ancient farmers in Southwest Asia and Europe--they were big into honeybees.

Farmers spreading west across that wide swath of territory acquired beeswax and probably consumed honey around 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, say biogeochemist Melanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues. Fragments of organic material clinging to pottery from early farming sites display a chemical signature typical of beeswax, the group reports in the Nov. 12 Nature.

The new study is the largest analysis of chemical residues on pottery to date and the first to document the widespread use of bee products among ancient farmers, says bioarchaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York in England.

It's still unclear how early farmers acquired beeswax and presumably honey, Roffet-Salque says. "We have shown that these farmers were exploiting bee products, but we cannot really tell if it was a result of honey hunting or beekeeping."

People probably didn't control honeybees to a large-enough extent to domesticate the insects until "well after" 4,000 years ago, says Greger Larson, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Oxford. Remains of a large, 3,000-year-old bee-keeping facility have been found in Israel (SN: 9/27/08, p. 11). Depictions of small-scale beekeeping in ancient Egypt date to as early as 4,400 years ago, Larson says.

Evidence of honey hunting spans an even broader time period. Rock art in Spain that may be as old as 10,000 years portrays two men climbing a rope ladder with sacks to collect honey and honeycombs from a wild hive. Present-day hunter-gatherers in warm regions collect honey from wild hives, often making fires to smoke out bees and avoid getting stung, a team reported last year in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Roffet-Salque's group analyzed over 6,400 pottery vessels from 154 farming sites. The most abundant evidence of beeswax appeared on pottery shards from the Balkan Peninsula, including Greece and the Aegean Islands. Of 1,915 pottery pieces found there dating to 7,800 to 5,000 years ago, about two dozen yielded beeswax residue.

Evidence of beeswax also turned up on a 7,000- to 6,000-year-old pottery fragment from an Algerian site. This is the first evidence of honeybee exploitation by ancient North African animal herders.

Two vessels from a farming site in eastern Turkey contained the oldest confirmed beeswax remains, dating back some 8,500 years.

Early farmers and herders may have used honey in cooking, leaving behind beeswax residue on pottery, the researchers say. Vessels may have also been used to boil down wax honeycombs so wax could be used for ritual, medical or other purposes. A 6,500-yearold human jaw from Slovenia in southern Central Europe contains a tooth with a beeswax filling.

Caption: Waxy Spread A map of Europe, West Asia and North Africa shows early farming and herding sites (dots) that had pottery analyzed in a new study. Colors denote proportion of beeswax residues relative to all residues on vessels.


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Title Annotation:HUMANS & SOCIETY
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Dec 12, 2015
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