Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers

Abstract

The pressures on honeybee (Apis mellifera) populations, resulting from threats by modern pesticides, parasites, predators and diseases, have raised awareness of the economic importance and critical role this insect plays in agricultural societies across the globe. However, the association of humans with A. mellifera predates post-industrial-revolution agriculture, as evidenced by the widespread presence of ancient Egyptian bee iconography dating to the Old Kingdom (approximately 2400 bc)1. There are also indications of Stone Age people harvesting bee products; for example, honey hunting is interpreted from rock art2 in a prehistoric Holocene context and a beeswax find in a pre-agriculturalist site3. However, when and where the regular association of A. mellifera with agriculturalists emerged is unknown4. One of the major products of A. mellifera is beeswax, which is composed of a complex suite of lipids including n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids and fatty acyl wax esters. The composition is highly constant as it is determined genetically through the insect’s biochemistry. Thus, the chemical ‘fingerprint’ of beeswax provides a reliable basis for detecting this commodity in organic residues preserved at archaeological sites, which we now use to trace the exploitation by humans of A. mellifera temporally and spatially. Here we present secure identifications of beeswax in lipid residues preserved in pottery vessels of Neolithic Old World farmers. The geographical range of bee product exploitation is traced in Neolithic Europe, the Near East and North Africa, providing the palaeoecological range of honeybees during prehistory. Temporally, we demonstrate that bee products were exploited continuously, and probably extensively in some regions, at least from the seventh millennium cal bc, likely fulfilling a variety of technological and cultural functions. The close association of A. mellifera with Neolithic farming communities dates to the early onset of agriculture and may provide evidence for the beginnings of a domestication process.

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Figure 1: High-temperature gas chromatography/mass spectrometry chromatograms of total lipid extract of a sherd from Çayönü Tepesi (6500–6000 cal bc) containing beeswax.
Figure 2: Partial gas chromatograms of total lipid extracts from Neolithic sherds from each geographical region.
Figure 3: Geographical distribution of prehistoric sites in the date range 7500 and 2000 cal bc yielding beeswax residues.
Figure 4: Regional distribution of beeswax residues in potsherd lipid extracts.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the UK Natural Environment Research Council for partial funding of the mass spectrometry facilities at Bristol (contract no. R8/H10/63; http://www.lsmsf.co.uk) and English Heritage, European Research Council, Leverhulme Trust, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche (ACI Jeunes Chercheurs), Natural Environment Research Council, Région PACA, Royal Society and Wellcome Trust for funding.

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M.R.-S., M.R., R.P.E. and A.K.O. conceived and planned the project about beeswax in prehistory. M.R.-S., M.R. and R.P.E. wrote the paper. M.R.-S., M.R., L.J.E.C., O.D., J.D., S.Mil., S.Mir., M.P., J.S., L.S., H.L.W., M.Bart. and D.U.-K. undertook planning of regional lipid residue analyses projects, sampling, analytical work and data analysis. P.G. created Figure 4 and Supplementary Information section 3. All other authors either directed excavations or provided expertise in relation to pottery collections and essential insights into the study region and sites.

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Correspondence to Mélanie Roffet-Salque or Martine Regert or Richard P. Evershed.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Information sections 1-3. Section 1 contains a table showing Neolithic sites from which sherds were analysed with summary of results of lipid residue analyses. Mesolithic sites were added where available. Section 2 contains a table showing archaeological contexts for sherds containing beeswax. Section 3 contains statistical analysis of the lipid residue dataset. (PDF 305 kb)

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Roffet-Salque, M., Regert, M., Evershed, R. et al. Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers. Nature 527, 226–230 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15757

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