History of the olive oil

The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin. Wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8thmillennium B. C. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor and in ancient Greece. It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated: along the Levantine coast stretching from the Sinai Peninsula to modern Turkey in the 4th millennium or somewhere in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent in the 3rd millennium. A widespread view exists that the first cultivation took place on the island of Crete. Archaeological evidence suggests that olives were being grown in Crete as long ago as 2500 B. C. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 B. C. during the early Minoan times, though the production of olive oil is assumed to have started before 4000 B. C. An alternative view maintains that olives were turned into oil by 4500 B. C. by Canaanites in present day Israel.

Homer called the olive oil “liquid gold.” In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their bodies. Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. Indeed the importance of the olive industry in ancient economies cannot be overstated. The tree is extremely hardy and its lifespan can be measured in centuries. Its wide and deep root system ensures its survival without additional watering, even in the water sparse Mediterranean. It thrives close to the sea where other plants cannot tolerate the increased salt content of underground water. Other than pruning in spring, it needs minimum cultivation and its fruit matures in the late autumn in the Northern Mediterranean or through the winter further south, when other staple food harvests are over and there is no other agricultural work to be done. Olive collecting and processing is relatively straightforward and needs minimal, mechanical technology. Olive oil, being almost pure fat, is dense in calories yet healthy, without adverse health effects. Unlike cereals which can be destroyed by humidity and pests in storage, olive oil can be very easily stored and will not go rancid for at least a year unless needlessly exposed to light or extremely hot weather, by which time a fresh harvest will be available. The combination of these factors helped ensure that the olive industry has become the region’s most dependable food and cash crop since prehistoric times.

Besides food, olive oil has been used for religious rituals, medicines as a fuel in oil lamps, for soap making and skin care products. The importance and antiquity of olive oil can be seen in the fact that the English word olive oil derives from c. 1175, olie or oile. In French huile and in Italian oleo come from Latin oleum and from Greek elaion which may have been borrowed through trade networks from the Semitic Phoenician use of el’yon meaning superior, probably in recognized comparison to other vegetable or animal fats available at that time. Robin Lane Fox suggests that the Latin borrowing of Greek elaion for oil is itself a marker for improved Greek varieties of oil producing olive, already present in Italy as Latin was forming, brought by Euboean traders, whose presence in Latium is signaled by remains of their characteristic pottery, from the mid-eighth century. Recent genetic studies suggest that species used by modern cultivators descend from multiple wild populations but a detailed history of domestication is not yet understood. Many ancient presses still exist in the Eastern Mediterranean region and some dating to the Roman period are still in use today.

Over 5000 years ago, olive oil was being extracted from olives in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the centuries that followed, olive presses became common from the Atlantic shore of North Africa to Persia and from the Po Valley to the settlements along the Nile. Olive trees and oil production in the Eastern Mediterranean can be traced to archives of the ancient city state Ebla (2600-2240 B. C.) which were located on the outskirts of the Syrian city Aleppo. Here some dozen documents dated 2400 B. C. describe lands of the king and the queen. These belonged to the library of clay tablets perfectly preserved by having been baked in the fire that destroyed the palace. A later source is the frequent mentions of oil in Tanakh.

Dynastic Egyptians before 2000 B. C. imported olive oil from Crete, Syria and Canaan and oil was an important item of commerce and wealth. Remains of olive oil have been found in jugs over 4000 years old in a tomb in the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea. Sinuhe, the Egyptian exile who lived in northern Canaan about 1960 B. C. wrote of abundant olive trees. Until 1500 B. C. eastern coastal areas of the Mediterranean were mostly heavily cultivated. Olive trees were certainly cultivated by the Late Minoan period (1500 B. C.) in Crete and perhaps as early as the early Minoan. The cultivation of olive trees in Crete became particularly intense in the post palatial period and played an important role in the island’s economy. The Minoans used olive oil in religious ceremonies. The oil in fact became a principal product of the Minoan civilization where it is thought to have represented wealth. The Minoans put the pulp into settling tanks and, when the oil had risen to the top, drained the water from the bottom. Olive tree growing reached Iberia and Etruscan cities well before the 8th century B. C. through trade with the Phoenicians and Carthage, then spread into Southern Gaul by the Celtic tribes during the 7th century B. C.

The first recorded oil extraction is known from the Hebrew Bible and took place during the Exodus from Egypt, during the 13th century B. C. During that time the oil was derived through hand squeezing the berries and stored in special containers under guard of the priests. A commercial mill for non sacramental use of oil was in use in the tribal Confederation and later in 1000 B. C. the fertile crescent and area consisting of present day Palestine, Lebanon and Israel. Over 100 olive presses have been found in Tel Miqne (Ekron) where the Biblical Philistines also produced oil. These presses are estimated to have had output of between 1000 and 3000 tons of olive oil.

Olive trees were planted in the entire Mediterranean basin during evolution of the Roman republic and empire. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had “excellent olive oil at reasonable prices” by the first century A. D. “the best in the Mediterranean” he maintained, a claim probably disputed by many ancient olive growers. Thus olive oil was very common in Hellenic and Latin cuisine. According to Herodotus, Apollodorus, Plutarch, Pausanias, Ovid and more, the city of Athens obtained its name because Athenians considered olive oil essential, preferring the offering of the goddess Athena, an olive tree, over the offering of Poseidon, a spring of salt water gushing out of a cliff. The Spartans were the Hellenes who used oil to rub themselves while exercising in the gymnasia. The practice served to eroticize and highlight the beauty of the male body. From its beginning, early in the 7th century B. C., the decorative use of olive oil quickly spread to all the Hellenic city states together with the naked appearance of athletes and lasted close to a thousand years despite its great expense.  (Main source was the Wikipedia. Should you want to get to know more about olive oil may we recommend Mort Rosenblum’s Olives: the Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, New York, North Point/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996.)