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Almonds drying after harvest (Southern Spain)

History of almonds: Almonds drying after harvest (Southern Spain)

Where do almonds come from?

Wild almonds are related to peaches and apples. Almonds probably evolved about the same time, around five million years ago. Like peach trees and apple trees, almond trees made cyanide poison. That kept sheep and goats and rabbits from eating their fruit.

Where do sheep come from?
More about West Asian food
All our West Asia articles


Peach trees grew in East Asia (China), and apple trees grew in Central Asia, but almond trees grew in West Asia. People ate the fruit of peaches and apples, but they didn’t eat almonds. Both the fruit and the nuts tasted bitter with cyanide. If you ate even a few dozen at the same meal the poison might kill you. Almonds were a problem. So people in West Asia started farming easier plants like figs and apples first.

History of apples
All about peaches
Where do figs come from?

When did people domesticate almonds?

But by 3000 BC, farmers along the Eastern Mediterranean coast (modern Israel and Lebanon) figured out how to select the few almond trees that didn’t make this poison – sweet almonds – and plant those. You still couldn’t eat the fruit, but you could eat the pits – the nuts. Almonds were easy to grow and pick and you don’t have to cook them, and they had a lot of fat and protein, so they quickly became very popular all across West Asia, as far east as Iran and Sogdiana (modern Pakistan and Afghanistan).

History of the Levant
Bronze Age timeline 

Almond harvest

Almond harvest near Tashkent under Hamida Banu (1590s AD, Qand-i Badam)

Beehives and almond blossoms

Bees pollinate almond trees, so by the Late Bronze Age, around 1400 BC, farmers often kept beehives in their almond orchards.

History of bees and honey
The Late Bronze Age

Almonds spread to Africa and Europe

When the Egyptians conquered Israel and Lebanon about 1400 BC, traders began to sell almonds to people in Egypt.

Food in ancient Egypt
New Kingdom Egypt

When the Phoenicians invaded and founded colonies in North Africa about 800 BC, they brought almonds with them and planted almond orchards there. Soon after that, farmers were growing almonds in Greece. Then when the Romans conquered Greece in the 100s BC they brought almonds back to Rome. Soon people were growing almonds all over the Roman Empire, in Spain and southern France and Italy.

Food in ancient Greece
Roman Empire food

When did almonds reach India and China?

Almonds travelled east with the Mughal invasions of India, and by 1700 AD farmers were growing almonds all over India. Not long after that, almonds finally came to Qing Dynasty China (earlier references to Chinese almonds are really about apricot pits).

Food in Mughal India
Food in Qing Dynasty China

Almonds come to California

When Spanish Franciscan monks invaded California in the 1700s AD, they brought almonds with them, too.

Who were the Franciscans?
The missions in California

The almond trees didn’t grow well along the coast, but by the 1800s California farmers found a home for almonds further from the ocean, where it was dryer. This meant displacing the Californian, Shoshone, and Paiute people who had lived there collecting pine nuts.

California Natives
Shoshone people
Paiute people

Today most US almonds come from California, and California also ships lots of almonds to India and China, where almonds have become very popular.

Learn by Doing – Almonds
More about peaches

Bibliography and further reading about almonds:

More about Dates
And more about Figs
More about West Asian Food home