Humans have been exploiting honey bees for almost 9,000 years, according to chemical analysis on ancient pottery from Europe, the Near East and North Africa.
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a large international team of researchers and archaeologists, reveals that traces of beeswax were found trapped in the clay fabric of cooking vessels dating from between 9,000 and 4,000 years ago.
In over 20 years of research carried out at the University of Bristol's School of Chemistry, led by chemist Richard Evershed, more than 6,400 pottery fragments from over 150 Old World archaeological sites were analyzed.
"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," Evershed said.
Indeed, since bees leave no fossil record, they remained ecologically invisible for most of the past 10,000 years.
The researchers found the distinctive chemical fingerprint of beeswax in pottery from Neolithic Europe, the Near East and North Africa, suggesting the use of bee products was geographically widespread.
Traces of beeswax were found in Neolithic pottery from southern Britain to Denmark, from the Balkans to Algeria.
The oldest beeswax-bearing pot was found in Çatalhöyük, a nearly 9,000-year-old site in Turkey.
"Bee products were exploited continuously, and probably extensively in some regions, at least from the seventh millennium B.C., likely fulfilling a variety of technological and cultural functions," the researcher wrote.
However climate limited the spread of bees into Northern Europe. There was no trace of bees wax in any of the 1,200 pottery samples from Ireland, Scotland and northern Scandinavia.
According to Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a chemist at the University of Bristol, and lead author of the paper, honey might have been the most obvious reason for exploiting the bee.
"It would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people," Salque said.
"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," she added.
According to the researchers, the close association of honeybees with Neolithic farming communities may provide evidence for the beginnings of honeybee domestication.