Origin & Travels of the Olive Tree

The origin of the olive tree on Earth is long lost in time and not just for thousands of years but millions. The plant is, to put simply, very, very ancient. Some resources point out to fossil discoveries of the plant’s ancestors found in Italy, Livorno dating back to 20 million years ago. The cultivation of the plant however, is much much new relative to the dating of the fossils found but still the olive tree is one of the oldest known cultivated plants in the world being grown even before the invention of writing.

The olive tree is native to Asia Minor, the Anatolia region of modern day Turkey. It was first cultivated 6000-7000 years ago along the Eastern Mediterranean coast. One of the first written records regarding olive oil were the inventory logs found in the remains of ancient trade ships in the Mediterranean travelling from port to port. Ever since its cultivation the tree and its produce have held a significant place in every culture that it crossed paths with. This significance was enough for the olive tree to be mentioned in one of humanity’s first written code of laws, the code of Hammurabi, which set out rules and regulations for olive oil trade and production.

After its cultivation developing significantly in the southern Anatolia region and the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine, the olive tree continued its journey on spreading to the rest of the Mediterranean basin, reaching to the islands of Cyprus and Crete. First plantings and harvesting of olive trees in Crete dates back to 3000 BC and this is believed to be one of the main reasons for the Minoan civilization’s dominance of the surrounding islands and the Greek peninsula. The Minoan civilization’s dominance in the area came to an abrupt end with the devastating volcanic eruption of Thera in Santorini around 1500 BC. It wasn’t long after the fall of the Minoan civilization, the Phoenician’s emerged in the coastal regions of Lebanon and their expansion beyond the Mediterranean basin introduced the olive tree to regions as far as Southern Europe and the Mediterranean shores of North Africa. This led to the inevitable expansion of olive cultivation to southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica. 

Olive oil harvest in Attica - 520 BC

Athenian statesman Solon was one of the important figures in history who understood the importance of the olive tree and encouraged the cultivation of olives in his economic reforms. But it was the Roman Empire who took on the mission to expand and improve the cultivation of olives to the rest of the Mediterranean countries. The olive cultivation was protected by the Roman law due to the fact that its trade was a key factor driving the economic growth of the Roman Empire. Olive oil was even accepted as a tax payment in certain regions of the empire. It is no surprise that olive trees were paid the same amount of respect and held a significance in Byzantium and Arabic empires in the Mediterranean region which led to similar regulations and protections by law.  

During the colonial times, olive trees embarked on a journey to the New World. The Spanish colonists from Seville carried and planted the first olive trees of the continent in Lima along Antonio de Rivera in the 1500s. From then cultivation of the plant spread rapidly along the valleys of South America which featured a similar climate to the Mediterranean. As the European missionaries marched north towards Mexico and California, establishing missions they introduced the olive tree to the area along with their religion.

In the latter half of the 20th century olive trees continued their expansion where post-war migration resulted in many Europeans bringing their expertise of olive cultivation to distant lands such as South Africa, Australia, Japan and the Far East. 

It is evident that the olive tree and olive oil has played an important role in humanity’s journey to higher levels of civilization and to this day it holds a significant place in our lives whether it be our diet, our skincare routine or as a health remedy. Now the big question though… How much do you really know about olive oil?

Author: Ali Yalcin

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