A Brief History of Olive Oil and its Uses Down to Our Day

Olive oil has an intricate and fascinating history that is closely connected to how we as a human race began to domesticate plant life for personal use. We now have proof that olive oil was part of the second phase of the plant food domestication for human consumption, right after the domestication of lentils and grain. This fact was established when a massive Early Chalcolithic site was serendipitously discovered while widening a road in Ein Zippori, a prehistoric site of Galilee, in modern-day Israel. Archeologists found fragments of clay pots that through chemical analysis, were proven to have contained traces of olive oil! Click Here to read more about this incredible find:

This establishes the fact that we can date back the production and human consumption of olive oil an astonishing 8000 years! And what an incredible historic tale olive oil has! 


Olive Oil as a Trade Commodity

The olive tree originates in Asia Minor. From there it spread to Iran, Syria, Palestine and the rest of the Mediterranean (including Italy) over 6000 years ago. It is the oldest known cultivated tree in the world. The cultivation of olive trees is the oldest known cultivation of any kind, dating back to before the written language was even invented! The Minoan Civilization that inhabited the island of Crete (Greece) was thought to be among the first to “commercialize” olive oil by 3'000 BC, exporting it to other nations, including Egypt. To the Minoans, Olive Oil represented wealth and a very valuable resource. As such, it was used in many of their religious ceremonies. 

After the Romans conquered Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor and thereby established the Roman Empire, olive oil became a valuable commercial commodity. Olive trees were being planted throughout the entire Mediterranean Basin to try and meet the demand for the trade of olive oil that the Roman Empire had created.  According to the historian Pliny the Elder, Italy was recognized as having “excellent olive oil” by the 1st Century AD. By the 5th Century AD, as the demand for more olive oil continued to grow, the Romans began to employ more sophisticated production techniques, such as the Trapetum Roman Olive Press. Many of these ancient Olive presses still exist to this day and some are still deemed functional! 

Productivity and commercialization of olive oil were further improved greatly by Joseph Graham’s development of the hydraulic pressing system in 1795. This system made it easier and faster to produce olive oil and was an important event in the growth of olive oil commercialization and trade.

Based on a recent Hexa Research conducted, it is expected that the global olive oil market will reach USD 11.04 Billion by 2025.This is attributed to the increase in health-consciousness of consumers who are seeking healthier oil options and remedies! Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been credited with lowering the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even depression. Clearly, olive oil is still in high demand today, just as it was 8’000 years ago! 


Olive Oil Throughout History 

Olive trees and olive oil have a very colorful past! From the very beginning, it was always regarded as a valuable, precious possession often referred to as liquid gold. This led to olive oil playing many important roles throughout history. Here are just a few examples:

  • Greek Mythology - According to Legend, Zeus decreed that whichever God gave the people of Greece the most esteemed gift, would earn the right to name the most important city. Athena brought an olive tree and it was the one favored by the citizens as it provided food and precious oil. Zeus, therefore, named Athens after his daughter Athena because she brought the best gift ever: an olive tree! (Reference)
  • Noah’s Ark - After the deluge, Noah sent out from the ark a dove that eventually returned with “an olive leaf, freshly plucked, in its bill” (Genesis 8:10,11 NWT). In this case, the olive leaf meant that the waters were drying up and was a reassuring symbol of hope!
  • Jesus and the Mount of Olives (Jerusalem) - Located near Gethsemane and Bethany, it was a favorite place for Jesus to meet with his disciples, overlooking the temple of Jerusalem and the Kidron Valley. It’s also where Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested and executed and it’s the location from where Jesus ascended to Heaven. (Acts 1:12, Luke 24:50,51) Today, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is a cemetery. However, at the foot of the south side of the Mount, you can still find some incredible olive trees that are estimated to be 2000 years old! (Reference)
  • Roman Gladiators -  Heroic Gladiators that won battles were rewarded with preferential treatment that included gifts, fandom and the best possible food available, including precious olive oil and olives. Before a battle, prized gladiators were fed barley bread soaked in olive oil to provide the much-needed energy for the fight ahead! (Reference)
  • Religious Ceremonies - Anointing is the ritual act of sprinkling, pouring, dousing, or rubbing aromatic oil over a person. This practice has a colorful past, but in modern times, it is found in most religions as a symbol of blessings and consecration. Milk, fats, yogurt, and even yak butter are used in these varied rituals throughout the world today. In Christianity, anointing was traditionally done with a special oil made of olive oil mixed with precious spices, such as myrrh. This type of anointing oil was used to anoint King David and even Jesus as King!
  • Favorite Body Cleanser - During the Roman Empire, soap didn’t exist. The cleaning ritual consisted of rubbing oneself in olive oil and scraping it off with a strigil (curved metal scraper). This would leave the skin moisturized and clean. Wealthy households would infuse their cleansing oil and even use it in their baths as a form of aromatherapy. Of course, this type of cleansing was often out of reach of poor people and was another way for the wealthy to distinguish themselves.
  • Olympic Games Prize - The Olympic prize for the winners of the games was a “Kotinos”, or wreath made from a sacred olive tree in Olympia. At times, the winners were also gifted small bottles of liquid gold, or as we like to call it, olive oil.  (Reference)
  • Symbol of Peace - Ancient Greece used the olive branch as a symbol of peace as they believed it drove away evil spirits and was closely associated with Greek Mythology. Also, since olive trees take a long time to produce fruit for harvest, it was believed that anyone who planted olive trees was expecting a long period of peace. (Reference)
  • Athletic Advantage - Prior to a competition, athletes would rub their whole bodies in olive oil to make it slick and smooth. It protected their skin, reduced wind resistance during races, and provided a particular advantage to wrestlers during a slippery match. It also made them look really good!
  • Ancient Medicine - In ancient Greece, Hippocrates wrote about 60 different ailments that could be cured with olive oil such as skin ailments, burns, infections, gynecological problems, birth control, healing wounds and scars and much, much more. The greeks’ practices were adapted by the Romans and most of the civilized world at that time.  Amazingly, many of these olive oil treatments have been proven to be still valid today and are often used as efficient and safe home remedies. 
  • Burials and Afterlife -  In ancient times, when a loved one died, they were cleaned, rubbed in olive oil and wrapped in cloths before being buried. The Egyptians would take it a step further and use olive oil as a crucial part of their mummification process. In most cultures, it was a common practice to bury their loved ones with precious items to aid them in the afterlife, and olive oil was a very treasured and valuable item to be buried with.  
  • Lighting Fuel - at a time where electricity didn’t exist and candles hadn’t been invented yet, lighting was provided by oil lamps. Old olive oil that was no longer fit for human consumption would be used as fuel for oil lamps. Not only did they provide a pleasant scent, it also literally lit up the room! 
  • Lubrication - Before WD-40  there was olive oil! Olive oil that was not good enough as lighting fuel or perhaps had gone rancid, was used for lubrication of ancient, and somewhat primitive, machinery were kept running smoothly for farming, building and even for the occasional torturing of prisoners. 
  • Fertilizer - What to do with all the leftover crushed olives after their precious oil had been extracted? Dating all the way back to Roman times, leftover crushed olives were used as fertilizer for olive trees and even integrated as feed for livestock. Nothing was wasted. Today, this is still a practice that some small olive oil mills employ. For example, Papa Vince’s Olive Oil Mill in Sicily, Italy still recycles their crushed olives into a natural and healthy fertilizer for their olive trees!

We could literally write a book on the many uses of olive oil, in ancient times and even to our day! One thing is sure: Olive trees and olive oil have an incredible history, are an integral part of the human fiber and are a resource that needs to be protected for future generations. The real, authentic olive oil is being assaulted by modern commercialization and diluted into a substance that is mediocre at best and no longer holds all the health benefits it once did! It’s time to bring back the real Olive Oil to our tables, that liquid gold that brings innumerable benefits to our health, makes our dishes come to life, and has proven the test of time! 8,000 years to be exact!

To try some authentic, real olive oil (the way nature intended) check out our shop! You won’t be disappointed.

Have a question or comment? Or have a related topic you would like to know more about? Please email us at info@papavinceeurope.com


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