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Biological Chemistry

Humans Used Beeswax As Long Ago As Neolithic Era, Study Finds

Cultural Heritage: Lipid traces in ancient vessels reveal that people were using beeswax at least 9,000 years ago

by Sarah Everts
November 16, 2015 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 93, ISSUE 45

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Credit: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons
This plaque, housed at the British Museum, is one of many ancient representations of bee worship.
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Credit: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons
This plaque, housed at the British Museum, is one of many ancient representations of bee worship.

Although people around the world—including ancient Mayan, Egyptian, Hindu, and Greek cultures—have all worshiped bees at one point or another, it’s been a long-standing mystery as to when humans began using beeswax. Now a team of researchers led by Mélanie Roffet-Salque at the University of Bristol has come closer to an answer: The group used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to analyze 6,400 pottery sherds across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for the chemical signature of beeswax, a precise mixture of n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids, and fatty acyl wax esters. The team found that use of beeswax dates back at least 9,000 years, to the 7th millennium B.C.E., when humans were turning to agricultural lifestyles (Nature 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nature15757). These Neolithic humans probably used beeswax for a variety of applications: as a waterproofing agent for pottery vessels as well as a fuel, a cosmetic ingredient, and an instrument for religious ceremonies. The team discovered that the earliest evidence of beeswax use was in Anatolia, Turkey. Hunter-gatherers might have been using beehive products earlier than the 7th millennium B.C.E., Roffet-Salque says, but it’s difficult to prove because hunter-gatherers did not use pottery, so there are no sherds to analyze.

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