Olive trees grew around the Mediterranean Sea, and early Stone Age people used the oil from wild trees, which burns well without much smoke, for light and for heat. People in West Asia began to grow their own olive trees around 6000 BC, and soon their neighbors were growing olives too.
Olive trees were, to Mediterranean people, the symbol of civilization. Everybody had to have fat in their diet somehow, but barbarians (foreigners) got their fat from animal products like milk and cheese and meat. Mediterranean people – the Greeks and Romans – thought it was gross to drink milk, and they ate only a little cheese and very little meat. They got their fat mainly from olives, or, because olives don’t keep very well, from olive oil
Olive trees take forever to grow. If you plant an olive seedling, and take good care of it, twenty years later you will begin to get olives from the tree. People who plant olive trees are really going to take care of those trees their whole lives so that their kids will have olives when they grow up. Ancient people considered it a terrible war crime to cut down people’s olive trees, as the Spartans did to the Athenians at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.
Because of how long it takes for olive trees to grow, people who move around a lot, like the nomads of Central Asia, don’t use olive oil much. They’re more likely to use animal fats like lard or butter. Olive trees also won’t grow where it is too cold, like northern Europe, or too hot, like southern Egypt, where people used palm oil instead.
Olive Trees Inside and Out, by Andrew Hipp (2004). Easy reading.
Olive Oil – From Tree to Table, by Peggy Knickerbocker, Laurie Smith (1997). With beautiful photographs, and recipes.
Olives : The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, by Mort Rosenblum (1998). Mainly about olive growing in France, this still has a lot of information about olives in general, and it’s entertaining to read, too.