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First beekeepers lived in prehistoric times

New archaeological evidence suggests humans have been keeping bees for over 9,000 years. This assumption is based on tiny fragments of beeswax being found on ancient pottery extracted from dig sites in Europe, the Near East and North Africa. The map, indicating the extent of bee keeping, was constructed after 6,000 pottery vessels were examined and the locations where the fragments were found mapped out. The oldest pottery fragment was discovered in Turkey.

The finding supports depictions of bees in cave art. Such cave paintings have shown bees, hives and honeycomb. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Cuevas de la Araña caves in Spain.

Until now no direct evidence of prehistoric humans keeping bees has been found. The extent of the spread of beekeeping seems to become more limited the further north human population settled; this reflects the climate conditions being unsuitable for beekeeping.

This find means beekeeping dates back to the very earliest signs of agriculture. It is thought prehistoric people kept bees either for wax (perhaps used in some types of medicine) or for honey. Speaking with BBC Science, Professor Richard Evershed of Bristol University, who was in co-charge of study, stated: “We’ve got the earliest evidence for man’s association with the honeybee.” He then added “Man is collecting the beeswax and the honey and perhaps even domesticating them.”

Adding to this, Dr Mélanie Roffet-Salque, the lead author of the paper, said in a research note: “The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, as this would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people. 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 research as been published in the journal Nature. The research paper is headed “Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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