Olive Oil History

Olive “trapetum” (crusher) in Pompeii (79 )

The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin; wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC.[1] The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor[2] in ancient Greece.

It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated: in Asia Minor in the 6th millennium; along the Levantine coast stretching from the Sinai Peninsula to modern Turkey in the 4th millennium;[1] 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. Archeological evidence suggest that olives were being grown in Crete as long ago as 2,500 BC. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olive is assumed to have started before 4000 BC. An alternative view retains that olives were turned into oil by 4500 BC by Canaanites in present-dayIsrael.[3]

Ancient oil press
Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Bodrum, Turkey

Besides food, olive oil has been used for religious ritualsmedicines, as a fuel in oil lampssoap-making, and skin care application. The importance and antiquity of olive oil can be seen in the fact that the English word oil derives from c. 1175, olive oil, from Anglo-Fr. and O.N.Fr.olie, from O.Fr. oile (12c., Mod.Fr. huile), from L. oleum “oil, olive oil” (cf. It. olio), from Gk. elaion “olive tree”,[4] 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 the time. Robin Lane Fox suggests[5] that the Latin borrowing of Greek elaion for oil (Latin oleum) 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-8th 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.[6]

Many ancient presses still exist in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and some dating to the Roman period are still in use today.