The History of Olives
Resources > References > The History of Olives

Are you a Smart Kitchen™ Chef?

Try it FREE or take a TOUR to explore Smart Kitchen!
+ -


Olives have been eaten and used by man for thousands and thousands of years. Since prehistoric times, people have been grinding and draining Olives to collect Olive Oil for use as fuel, in cooking and in beauty treatments. Depending on the type, Olives are composed of between 15 and 30% Oil.

The history of the Olive tree, its fruit, and the substance Homer called “liquid gold,” Olive Oil, is closely interwoven with the history of all the ancient and modern-day civilizations that developed on or near the Mediterranean Sea. Olives and Olive Oil were important factors in those civilizations’ survival, development of trade, medicine and religions.  Today, Olives and Olive Oil are nearly synonymous with Mediterranean cooking, and are a central flavor in all Mediterranean Cuisine.

As best anyone can tell, the domesticated olive tree (Olea Europeae) was developed from the wild olive tree (Oleaster) somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago in Syria and Crete. Olive trees can live for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. There are claims that of trees that have survived since before Christ was born, and scientific proof that Olive trees growing on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are nearly 1,000 years old.  The trees are extremely hardy, can withstand droughts and excessive heat, and are fire-resistant. Their root systems are very strong, and trees have been known to completely regenerate even if the entire above-ground tree has been destroyed.

The wild olive is a scruffy little tree with tiny, inedible fruit that is indigenous to most of the Mediterranean, parts of Africa and Asia. It’s quite amazing that the small, gnarled tree, gave rise to such an important source of food and oil.

The development and distribution of the domesticated olive tree is considered to be one of Western man’s first success stories. From Syria and Crete, the domesticated tree spread to Turkey, Italy, North Africa, Spain, France and the rest of the countries on the Mediterranean.

Olives were so important to both the Egyptians and the Greeks, that stories about them were woven into their mythologies. The Egyptians claimed the goddess Isis taught them how to plant Olive trees and extract Olive Oil from the fruit. In Greek mythology, Athena is credited with planting the first Olive tree on the Acropolis, for which she was awarded patronage of the city of Athens by Zeus. That first tree supposedly planted by the goddess was worshipped by the Greeks and guarded by soldiers.

The Greeks were the first to produce Olives and Olive Oil on a large scale for export. The Olives were considered so valuable, only virgin women and men who had taken a vow of chastity were allowed to cultivate the trees and harvest the fruit. There were even laws concerning how many Olive trees could be cut down in a given year.

From the very beginning, Olives have had symbolic significance. Olive trees, leaves, fruit and oil can represent peace, safety, fertility, abundance, protection, glory, blessing, purification, hope and success.  In the Bible, the dove Noah sends out to determine the height of the flood returns with an Olive branch (or leaf, depending on the translation) in its beak, a signal that the waters have receded. In Greece, Olive leaf wreaths were worn by renowned scholars and successful soldiers, and Olive branches and bowls of Olive Oil were given as awards to winning athletes. Olive leaves were woven into the victory crowns of Romans as well.

The Romans took the tree to all corners of their Empire, including Western Europe. The Romans didn’t just plant the trees; they taught their subjects how to extract the precious Olive Oil, as well as their methods for curing the Olives. To extract the Oil from Olives and the juice from Grapes to make Wine, the Romans invented the screw press, the same screw press that was part of Gutenberg’s first printing press. Except for adding the centrifuge in the 19th century, the machinery and method of extracting Olive Oil hasn’t changed from Roman times to this day.

The Romans’ first curing method for Olives was to soak them for a number of weeks in changes of water until their bitterness abated. They soon developed faster techniques, such as soaking them in a paste of wood ash, or in Brines flavored with Spices and VinegarHoney or Wine. They came up with different methods for curing the Olives at every stage of their growth, from completely green to fully ripe.  They ate Olives in vast quantities, and used the Oil for everything from axle grease to making soap.

The Romans weren’t the only people who spent time finding ways to use Olives and Olive Oil.  In Biblical times, Olives and Olive Oil were used in cooking, as fuel, for light (in oil lamps), in medicine, in beauty treatments, and perhaps most importantly, Olive Oil was used for anointment in religious rituals. The Egyptians grew and ate Olives, and also imported large amounts of Olive Oil from neighboring countries.  Olive Oil was one of the ingredients used for preserving Egyptian mummies.  Cured Olives were included in Pharaohs’ tombs, to be enjoyed in the afterlife.

Western European Olives were exported to the colonies of the great powers during the Age of Exploration. In America, growing Olives has been a mixed bag. Despite the diligent efforts of Thomas Jefferson, who was known for his horticultural expertise, and who fell in love with Olives while visiting Europe in 1787, attempts to establish Olive trees on the East Coast were unsuccessful.

Results on the West Coast, however, are quite different. The first cuttings were planted in California by Franciscan monks in the 1700s (Olive trees grow best from cuttings or by grafting rather than seed). The trees were first brought to Mexico from Peru by Franciscan monks, and then to California. The monks planted olive trees in their mission gardens (the type of Olive is appropriately called a Mission Olive), moving northward from San Diego to San Francisco. The Olive tree immediately loved the California climate and soil and has thrived there from the beginning. By the 1800s, California had developed a strong commercial Olive industry. Most of the Southern California Olive groves were eventually replaced by other crops such as grapes for making wine, or succumbed to the rapidly growing human population. However, in Northern California, the Olive industry continues to thrive. Though the bulk of the world’s Olives are still grown in Mediterranean countries, 99% of the table Olives consumed in America today come from Northern California.