The origins of the Olive Tree in the Prehistoric Aegean

Where do we find for the first time an olive tree? Is it Syria? Asia Minor? Crete? Actually, none of the above is the answer. Maybe the Mediterranean basin had the perfect climate for the olive tree to thrive, but it is the small island of Santorini that was hiding in its volcanic soil a big surprise for the Department of the Historical Geology and Paleontology: fossilized leaves of the European olive (Olive Europea Oleaster) together with palm, mystique and tamarisk leaves, where protected in the volcano ash, dating back to 60.000 years ago.

The plants with tough leaves, such as the olives and the palms, retained their original epidermis, that`s what made it possible to determine their genus and species with such certainty. The presence of olive pits, among leaves and feathers, refutes the view that the trees did not bear fruits during that period.

On the same island, a branch of olive tree dated with the method of carbon 14 placed the Minoan eruption in the late 17th Century B.C. The archaeological site of Akrotiri that was buried under the volcanic ash during the same eruption, revealed a wide variety of ceramics that prove an extended use of olive oil during the 17th Century B.C., not only for the nutritional needs of the islanders, but also as a main trading product.

It appears that wild olives were being collected all around Greece since at least the Neolithic era, but the domestic cultivation began most probably in Crete. Did the Minoans learn it from another civilization of the East Mediterranean, did they discover it themselves, it is still unknown. The 3.000 - 4.000-year-old olive tree in Vouves, west of Chania, is an alive witness of the whole history of Crete.

In the palace of Knossos, a wall painting of an olive orchard, numerous huge storage jars for olive oil and basins used for the purification of the olive oil, evidence the significance of this product for the health and economy of the Minoans. The olive oil was not only extensively used for cooking vegetables, legumes, and meat, but it is also mentioned as a cosmetic product.

No wonder why both men and women are depicted with sleek hair and skin! I bet their cholesterol was on the low side as well!

A series of clay tablets from the palatial archives of Knossos, Pylos, and Mycenae, dated back to the late bronze age (1600 – 1100 B.C), indicate that among other uses olive oil was sometimes perfumed and perhaps used in religious context, during the ceremonies to honor their deities or their deceased.

Several findings in excavation from Phaistos, Zakros, Knossos, Archanes, and Messara, prove the important role of the olive tree and its products both as key elements of the nutrition and as cultural symbols in the Aegean Sea. It is obvious why later on it was attributed to a Goddess, Athena, to have offered this precious gift to the citizens of the city that would get her name.

Dimitra Lola