Where did figs come from?
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History of Figs

fig
Figs

November 2016 - Wild fig trees first grew in Africa and West Asia and South Asia and around the Mediterranean Sea beginning probably about a hundred million years ago, in the time of the dinosaurs. Many primates eat figs, and people have been eating wild figs since there first were people. People loved figs because figs are a very healthy food. They're full of calcium and potassium and fiber, and they also taste delicious. You can dry figs in hot sunshine like raisins and they'll keep all winter, too. Fig trees produce two crops every year (at least in some climates). Some people also eat the leaves of the fig tree.

By about 11,000 years ago, people in West Asia had already begun to farm fig trees. Farmed figs may be the first kind of food that anybody farmed, even before wheat and barley. The big advantage to farming figs is that wild figs can only reproduce when tiny wasps get inside the fruit to get the pollen. People can reproduce figs by planting small branches from a tree to grow new trees, and in that way people can eat figs without the tiny wasps inside them.

painting of large bowl of figs
Fresco of figs from Pompeii (79 AD)

In the first centuries AD, the Romans brought figs with them throughout the Roman Empire - all around the Mediterranean and to northern Europe and England. Figs probably first traveled east to China along the Silk Road after the Islamic conquests, as the first time we hear about figs in China is about 700 AD, during the T'ang Dynasty, and then people in China call figs by their Arabic name, "tin". But it took a long time before people started to farm figs in southern Africa. When Spanish settlers came to Mexico and California from Spain in the 1500s, they brought figs with them and planted them in North America as well.

Learn by Doing - Eating Figs
More about dates
More about African food

Bibliography and further reading about figs:

Or check out the Encyclopedia Britannica article about figs.

Lamb Stew Recipe (with Figs)
More about Barley
More about West Asian food
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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