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Honeybees sweetened early farmers’ lives

Chemical traces on pottery point to widespread use of honey and wax as early as 9,000 years ago

1:00pm, November 11, 2015
honeycombs in a log

BEE STORY  A hollow log in France holds layers of honeycombs. Ancient farmers in Southwest Asia and Europe sought beeswax and probably honey from sweet spots like this, a chemical analysis of pottery pieces between 9,000- and 5,000-years-old suggests.  

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 Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol in England and her colleagues. Fragments of organic material clinging to pottery from early farming sites display a chemical signature typical of beeswax, the scientists report 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, who did not participate in the study.

It’s still unclear how early farmers acquired beeswax and presumably honey, Roffet-Salque says. “We

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