Monday, November 16, 2015

Bee-Line! (Roffet-Salque et al, Nature, 2015)

“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.  It shows widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early farmers and pushes back the chronology of human-honeybee association to substantially earlier dates.”
This study is huge, huge, huge.  It shows, almost conclusively, that the honeybee was managed and domesticated from the earliest Near Eastern Neolithic.  It shows the ingenuity, resourcefulness and intellectual curiosity of the earliest farmers.   From Nature via Popular Archaeology

The biggest benefit of the honeybee in the West is that she is a pollinator and this increases crop yields among cereals but especially among early farmer nuts and fruits like olives, pomegranate and grapes.  (ask the Chinese guy with a feature duster wired to a stick) The distribution of wax particles in ceramic sherds as seen in the map above almost necessitates some domestication features, one being that the hive would have to produce enough honey in a place with a long winter.

Domestic bees also need to have a reasonable amount of defensive instinct to ward off all the claws that find their way into a hive, but without going ape-shit and killing the beekeeper (like Africanized European honeybees).  An important deciding factor for modern beekeepers around the world in many climes is temperament, as certain environments require a more defensive reaction to raccoon hands, wasps, fire-ants, bear claws, etc.  So bee temperament is little like the horns on cattle, good when you need them, bad when you don't.

Because BBB does everything and knows everything, I can tell you having took my first hive apart three years ago it is an exercise in extreme pucker-factor.  Any beekeeper will tell you that observation is how you learn.  And for farmers this must have involved lots of watching and puckering.

In the Paleolithic, this was observation of beelines and knowing how to smoke the hive, but evidently the farmers (Çatalhöyük is earliest in this study) learned how to make bee traps and artificial hives which they were able to transport over water (assuming their harvesting was always destructive at this stage).  As the paper shows, bees were introduced by humans in Neolithic Britain, so we are absolutely dealing with human importation as this is out of worker bee range and way outside swarm range, which is irrelevant if a worker can't scout to begin with.

This study examines pottery throughout the West and finds beeswax in a good number of the interiors (this being underestimated as they note in Neolithic Spain).  As mentioned two blog posts ago, it had been theorized that beeswax had been used to 'glaze' or water-proof the interior of drinking ceramics (Heron and Evershed 1993; Charters and Evershed 1995).  [I'm guessing this was buffed into the interior walls a little like turtle wax)  So whereas mead has variously been supposed to have been a beverage of early times based on residue analysis, it may be that the beaker contained other liquids in a container sealed with beeswax.

Beekeeping is nearly impossible understand looking at a fossil record.  The authors of this study have taken an interesting way to show something very exciting.  In many ways, beekeeping is like falconry [my comments here], which is teasingly faint but present enough to make us speculate.

Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers
Mélanie Roffet-Salque1, Martine Regert2, Richard P. Evershed1, Alan K. Outram3, Lucy J. E. Cramp1,4, Orestes Decavallas5,6, Julie Dunne1, Pascale Gerbault7,8, Simona Mileto1,9, Sigrid Mirabaud6†, Mirva Pääkkönen1,10, Jessica Smyth1,4, Lucija Šoberl1,11†, Helen L. Whelton1, Alfonso Alday-Ruiz12, Henrik Asplund10, Marta Bartkowiak13, Eva Bayer-Niemeier14, Lotfi Belhouchet15, Federico Bernardini16,17, Mihael Budja11, Gabriel Cooney18, Miriam Cubas19†, Ed M. Danaher20, Mariana Diniz21, László Domboróczki22, Cristina Fabbri23, Jesus E. González-Urquijo19, Jean Guilaine24, Slimane Hachi25, Barrie N. Hartwell26, Daniela Hofmann27, Isabel Hohle28, Juan J. Ibáñez29, Necmi Karul30, Farid Kherbouche25, Jacinta Kiely31, Kostas Kotsakis32, Friedrich Lueth33, James P. Mallory26, Claire Manen24, Arkadiusz Marciniak13, Brigitte Maurice-Chabard34, Martin A. McGonigle35, Simone Mulazzani36,37, Mehmet Özdoğan30, Olga S. Perić38, Slaviša R. Perić38, Jörg Petrasch39, Anne-Marie Pétrequin40, Pierre Pétrequin40, Ulrike Poensgen41, C. Joshua Pollard42, François Poplin43, Giovanna Radi23,
Peter Stadler44, Harald Stäuble45, Nenad Tasić46, Dushka Urem-Kotsou47, Jasna B. Vuković46, Fintan Walsh48, Alasdair Whittle49, Sabine Wolfram50, Lydia Zapata-Peña12‡ & Jamel Zoughlami5
doi:10.1038/nature15757 2015 Nature Communications [Doc Link]

See also [University of Bristol]

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