Olive oil throughout history

Olive oil throughout history

The discovery of 50000 year old fossilized olive leaves in the island of Santorini, Greece indicates the millennia old presence of the olive tree on the planet. A number of different suggestions have been put forward over time, regarding the origin of the olive tree. Alphonse De Candolle in his book “Origin of the Cultivated Plants” expresses his belief that the olive tree originally came from Syria and Asia Minor. His opinion, although shared by numerous other researchers, is greatly contradicted by colleagues of his, suggesting that the olive tree originated from Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in Africa. In contrast to its origin however, far less controversy seems to arise with regard to the first cultivation of the olive tree in Europe in antiquity. Systematic cultivation of the olive tree is suggested by several archaeological findings to have started on the island of Crete during the Neolithic era.


Olive oil in Minoan Crete

French researcher Paul Faure(1916-2007), capitalizing on years of thorough research and numerous excavations, concluded that, “The honour of having converted the wild olive into cultivated trees belongs to the peasants of Crete.” In the years that followed, olive oil served as a catalyst for the flourishing on Crete of the first recorded Greek and thus European civilization, the renowned Minoan civilization(3400-1200BC). Minoans took several steps further to develop organized olive oil extraction units already from the 15th century B.C[1]. Tangible evidence of the above has been provided by a significant number of truly remarkable archaeological findings. In 1963 during an excavation in the ancient Minoan city of Zakros, a cup filled with intact fat black olives(most possibly offered by a Minoan priest to his chthonic goddesses) that dated 3500 years was found at the bottom of a well inspiring the awe of the entire archaeological community. Up until today, those olives are the most ancient ever discovered.

Equally impressive has been the discovery of a Minoan olive oil mill in Kommos  village, the port of the great Minoan city of Phaistos. The mill, which is considered the oldest and most complete olive processing facility of Minoan Crete, was found literally intact with several mortars and other related tools. In Kato Zakros, Eastern Crete, urns used to store olive oil were found in the warehouses of the famous regional Minoan palace. Interestingly, researchers suggest that Zakros, being one of the most important commercial ports of the Minoan Kingdom, operated as a transit centre for olive oil exports to the Middle East and Egypt. In the capital city Knossos, the remains of a palatial olive grove of 400 olive trees were unearthed next to an olive oil mill just outside the palace and a number of gigantic urns used for olive oil storage.  On the small islands of Psira and Psilos, north-eastern Crete, which had close trading ties with the capital Knossos, findings varied from  olive trees with their stems to urns and murals relating to olives. The list of significant findings indicating the central role of olive oil in several facets of the Minoans’ daily routine goes on to include a tablet unearthed in Knossos that carried important ritualistic information regarding quantities of olive oil allocated to each shrine, countless talismans and wreaths portraying events relating to the olive tree, as well as hundreds of containers used for storing the olive oil.

The destruction of the Northern coastal areas of Crete by enormous tidal waves triggered by a massive volcanic eruption in Thira (Santorini) around 1600BC signaled the gradual demise of the Minoan civilization. Deprived of their powerful fleet, the Minoans not only had to give up a major part of their trade activity, but they were also vulnerable to invasions by Mycenaeans sailing from mainland Greece. Although the glorious days of the Minoan civilization were coming to an end, the olive tree, one of the greatest contributors to its prosperity, was about to set off on a long journey across the Mediterranean.


Spreading of the olive tree in the Mediterranean region

Along with sophisticated Minoan techniques in cultivation and olive oil production, the olive tree left the island of Crete on Mycenaean and Phoenician ships. The Phoenicians were skilful merchants active throughout the Mediterranean basin, who are widely believed nowadays to have been the first to introduce the olive tree to Egypt. The contribution of the ancient Greeks to the spreading of the olive tree in the Mediterranean basin, mostly to its western part, has also been hugely significant. Greek tribes in search of arable soil began to sail beyond the borders of Ancient Greece. By 600BC thriving Greek colonies had been established in Sicily, Southern mainland Italy, Southern Gaul (modern France), Libya, Sardinia, Corsica and the coasts of Iberia (modern Iberian peninsula).

In their new countries, colonial Greek populations, apart from their native deities and the blessing of their Metropolis (Greek city-state from which they originated), also carried the olive tree along with their centuries-old expertise in its cultivation and harvesting. Centuries after the introduction of olive tree cultivation in the Mediterranean Southern European regions by ancient Greeks, the Romans stepped forward to carry on with the task. The olive tree would travel to every corner of the vast Roman Empire, quite often presented under the veil of a peaceful and humble offering to the people of the region conquered. Importantly, in Spain, although the olive tree had already been presented by the Phoenicians during their maritime domination of the region in 1050BC, it was not before the Roman rule (45BC) that its cultivation developed to a noteworthy extent.

In the following centuries the Romans, based on practices initially developed by the Greeks, looked to expand their olive plantations to every corner of their empire that was possible. In the beginning however, they avoided cultivating olive trees in Italy itself but chose to rely on producers in distant provinces, such as Spain. A strategy they exploited to achieve close trading relationships with the conquered provinces of their huge Roman Empire. However, soon after the entire Mediterranean had been put under Roman rule and the last pockets of Greek resistance had been eliminated, systematic cultivation of olive trees was launched in Italy as well. Following the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and the descent of Northern Barbarian tribes on the south, olive cultivation entered a dark era that would last about 1000 years. Fortunately, Byzantium, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, and its glorious capital Constantinople, could still guarantee a safe and prosperous future for the olive tree.

Olive oil consumption in Constantinople was directed to three major sectors: nutrition, the lighting of the capital at night and cosmetic uses created a demand for massive quantities of olive oil. Thus, important trading activity based on olive oil was established throughout the Byzantine Empire that remained strong during both the invasions of the Crusaders and the subsequent Ottoman conquests that signalled the end of Byzantium.    


Olive oil in the New World

In late Middle Ages, olive oil, exiting a long dark era, started to regain part of its past glory in the former Western Roman Empire, mainly under the careful influence of religious communities. Around the 16th century AD, the olive tree boarded European conquistadors’ vessels to cross the Atlantic and conquer the New World. Five centuries later, the olive tree is successfully cultivated in California, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina.  

Most recently, Olea Europaea has embarked on a different, rather challenging adventure. The rapidly growing markets of the Far East, in combination with the increasing scientific findings on the health benefits of olive oil, have triggered a mutual interest promoting the extended cultivation of several European varieties of the olive tree mainly in China and Korea.

Wandering the world for the past 5000 years, the blessed olive tree, sacred to ancient Athenians, has managed to establish its presence in every corner of this planet. Once practically endemic in the Mediterranean basin, the olive tree has exhibited some remarkable adaptive skills which largely indicate a biological superiority. Resistant to demanding environments with minimum requirements of food and water, but still responsible for the production of one of the most valuable natural foods, the olive tree is a fine example of nature’s generosity to humans.       

[1] Blitzer Harriet, «Olive Cultivation and Oil Production in Minoan Crete», in M-C. Amureti and J-P. Brun (eds.) La Production du Vin et de l’ Huile en Mediterrane, (BCH Supplement 26 (Paris 1993), 163-175



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