A Real Mediterranean Production
Homer called it “liquid gold.” In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body. 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.
Besides food, olive oil has been used for religious rituals, medicines, as a fuel in oil lamps, soap-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 Greek, elaion “olive tree”, 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.
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin; wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor in modern 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 Greece 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. 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-day Israel.
Recent genetic studies of olives suggest that species used by modern cultivators descend from multiple wild populations, but a detailed history of their 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.