Prehistoric Man Was Exploiting Bees in Turkey at Least 8,500 Years Ago

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We knew man liked honey thousands of years ago. Now we know he also used its hive products more than 8,500 years ago.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Prehistoric man was not only stealing honey from bees to eat, he was using their wax, scientists have now proven based on Neolithic pottery pieces imbued with beeswax found in Europe, dating back some 8,500 years.

We knew man likes honey. Among the vast collection of prehistoric rock paintings in eastern Spain is one unmistakably showing people collecting honey, though the precise dating of the art is arguable. Some of the paintings do go back more than 8,000 years but some are more recent.

Wall-paintings from Pharaonic Egypt show early scenes of actual beekeeping, and the bible is rife with mentions of the sticky sweet – need we say more than "Land of milk and honey". There's even a context in which the ancient Israelite and Egyptian lore meet over honey – "And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man [in Egypt] a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds" (Genesis 43:11).

But the wax-imbued pottery now found in Turkey goes back to the 7th millennium BCE, thousands of years earlier than the pharaonic and biblical eras, says an archaeological team from the University of Bristol in a paper published in Nature today.

The scientists discovered the distinctive chemical fingerprint of beeswax while analyzing chemicals in the clay fabric of more than 6,000 potsherds from over 150 archaeological sites in Europe, they explain.

"The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, as this would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people," said Dr Mélanie Roffet-Salque, lead author of the paper. "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."

"The lack of a fossil record of the honeybee means it's ecologically invisible for most of the past 10,000 years. Although evidence from ancient Egyptian murals and prehistoric rock art suggests mankind's association with the honeybee dates back over thousands of years, when and where this association emerged has been unknown - until now," said Professor Richard Evershed of Bristol University in a statement.

"Our study is the first to provide unequivocal evidence, based solely on a chemical 'fingerprint', for the palaeoecological distribution of an economically and culturally important animal," Evershed continued. "It shows widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early farmers and pushes back the chronology of human-honeybee association to substantially earlier dates."

The paper bring together research carried out at Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit (School of Chemistry) led by Professor Richard Evershed. Co-authors of the paper include archaeologists investigating sites in Europe, the Near East and Northern Africa.

Meanwhile in Israel, sweet nothings in Turkish

No evidence for use of beeswax has been found at Neolithic sites above the 57th parallel North. It is probably too cold for honeybees to have existed above that level at the time.

The 57th parallel North: No evidence of bee exploitation in Neolithic times has been found above that line.Credit: Haaretz

Meanwhile, in biblical Israel, well below that parallel, it was warm enough for bees to thrive – Turkish bees, it seems.

In July 2010, biology and archaeology researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reported evidence of "industrial" beekeeping in ancient Israel – for which purpose the ancient Hebrews imported relatively sunny-tempered bees from Turkey.

That paper was based on the 2007 discovery of gigantic industrial bee-keeping facilities dating to the 10th or early 9th century BCE by a team headed by Amichai Mazar, a third-generation archaeologist, in Tel Rehov, an excavation in Jezreel Valley. The more than 200 apiaries had to have contained over a million bees, the archaeologists estimated -  living within the ancient town limits.

It took an international effort though to identify the ancient bee corpses found within the apiaries as not local, or anything like other bees in the region – Iranian, Egyptian or Lebanese. Morphologically, they were typical of the species in ancient Turkey, a finding that astonished the archaeologists. They found no evidence that the bees' range had been different back then, and reached the conclusion that they had been imported.

The researchers pointed out at the time that the local "Syrian" bee has a lousy temper while the Turkish ones are less aggressive. They are also more productive. Sounds like a sweet deal. Maybe the pleasant demeanor of the Turkish bee explains why the first farmers in southern Turkey were also  the first to industrialize their use of bee products.

The excavation of Tel Rehov, where ancient Israelites cultivated bees ... Turkish bees. Credit: Baz Ratner