Fossil evidence indicates the olive tree had its origins some 20-40 million years ago in the Oligocene era. Evidence of the first olive cultivation has been found on the border between Turkey and Syria, in the period around 6000-8000 years ago. A recent DNA study of fossilized pollen has helped to narrow it down to this period.
For thousands of years olive oil main function was for lighting lamps rather than culinary use. Edible olives seem to date back to around the Bronze age (3150 to 1200 BCE). Over the ages the cultivation of olives and olive oil pressing managed to decrease the bitterness in olives and olive oil, also increase production.
Inventory logs carried by ancient trading ships dating back to around 4,000 BCE contain the first written records of olive oil, which was transported through the Mediterranean area from one port to another.
As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete and olive oil may well have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. An olive tree near the Palace of Knossos on Crete is reputed to be around 4,000 years old.
The first great expansion of olive cultivation seems to be around Greece and Egypt around 1,700 BCE.
Around 1,000 BCE the Phoenicians are thought to have brought olives to Spain and Northern Africa.
The expansion of the Roman Empire in around 900 BCE was key to olive oil and its uses. The Roman Empire expanded its civilization throughout southern Europe and North Africa, bringing with it olive trees to all conquered territories. As an important commodity, the Romans made many improvements in olive tree cultivation, olive oil extraction and storage – and valued olive oil to such an extent that it was even accepted as payment for taxes. Production increased greatly and olive oil became most popular. More olive mills were built as this culinary staple became increasingly popular.
The decline of the Roman Empire in 500 A.D. brought with it a decrease in olive cultivation and a reduction in olive oil use.
Around 1,110 AD olive groves begin to flourish once again, particularly in Italy, thanks to the merchant class who discovered that selling olive oil in local markets was an important source of income. During this time, Tuscany becomes a renowned region for the cultivation of olive trees.
During the Renaissance, Italy becomes the largest producer of olive oil in the world, renowned for its rich and flavourful oils that graced the tables of nobles and royalty throughout Europe.
Spanish colonists brought the olive to the New World in the 16th century where its cultivation prospered in present-day Peru and Chile. Olive tree cultivation quickly spread along the valleys of South America’s dry Pacific coast where the climate was similar to the Mediterranean.
Around 1,800 AD, olive oil makes its commercial debut in the Americas as Italian and Greek immigrants demand its import from Europe.
Currently, olive oil continues to grow in popularity as an important ingredient in everyday cuisines. Consumption is still predominantly in Mediterranean countries with a long tradition of olive oil culture, however as more countries are becoming health conscious, olive oil is re-asserting itself as the original super-food, thanks to its proven health benefits and nutritional properties.
As a result of its ongoing success, there are now more than 860 million olive trees in the world today, with more being planted every day! Each cultivar is enhanced and improved for flavour, stability and size. There are over 700 varieties across the world today.