Where is olive oil from?

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Olive trees (on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem)

Olive trees (on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem)

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 harvest (From the British Museum, London)

Olive harvest (From the British Museum, London)

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

 Roman olive press (southern France)

Roman olive press (southern France)

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.

Persian oil lamp (Iran, 1200s AD)

Persian oil lamp (Iran, 1200s AD)

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.

Learn by Doing – making an olive oil lamp
More about West Asian food

Bibliography and further reading about olive oil:

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.

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Ancient Greece
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By |2018-04-22T18:53:00+00:00July 6th, 2017|Economy, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Where is olive oil from?. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 6, 2017. Web. December 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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