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  HOME | Science, Nature & Technology

Sea of Galilee, The Cradle of Mediterranean Olive Cultivation

By Laura Fernández Paloma

DEIR HANNA -- "The Mount of the Million Olive Trees", which surrounds the Sea of Galilee, preserves the robust and twisted hundred-year old trees of a storied past, the origins of a crop that today bathes the whole of the Mediterranean in oil and olives.

"I showed that the southern Levant provides the earliest evidence, and specifically the area of the Sea of Galilee, of olive oil cultivation dated to 7,000 years ago," Professor Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University tells Efe.

Langgut set out to settle the debate between countries in the Mediterranean basin, such as Spain, Morocco and Greece, which are competing to demonstrate they were the pioneers in the domestication of the olive tree.

For her, the origin lies in ancient Israel, in the region known as the southern Levant, an area that today would include Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Her research followed the trail of pollen fossils, compiling existing palynological studies and - using archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence - comparing the periods of sudden increases in these grains, which can remain fossilized for thousands of years. The data was clear.

While in Spain, for example, the samples place the crop 2,500 years ago, in this region on the shores of Lake Tiberias (the biblical Sea of Galilee) it is more than six millennia old.


In today's northern Israel, olive trees have a name. And it is common to see robust olive trunks twisting their way up from the middle of a road’s asphalt in a residential street displaying their longevity.

The residents who own land, who are mostly Arabs, these days dedicate themselves to harvesting the olive, a kind which they call "Roman" that they believe to be thousands of years old, Mazen Ali, native of Deir Hannan and director of the Center of Patrimony of the Old Olive tree, tells Efe.

In fact, they are only centuries old, says Langgut, according to carbon dating that has been carried out which dates them to around 900 years.

Because of their complex anatomical structure, olive trees do not produce an annual ring on the woody stem, a common measure used by some to date them. The trunks, marked inside with these circumferences, can have a diameter of up to nine meters, like the famous "Twins" of the Arab town of Deir Hanna.

"It is the icon of Galilee", describes Ali at the foot of the specimen, located in a small olive grove on the outskirts of the town, on the side of a hill from which you can see the biblical waters of the Sea of Galilee.

At first sight, it looks like two imposing trees: two twisted trunks full of knots joined at the base, but which actually has only one root. "For us it is like the Badawi for the West Bank", another ancient tree located in the village of Al Walaja, near Bethlehem, considered the longest living olive tree in Palestine.

For generations, these trees have symbolized the link between the people and the land, and are a fundamental part of the culture.


The sudden and massive increase in pollen in a given area evidenced by polynology allows us to deduce there was "human interference", Langgut says on the method used to trace the history of olive growing.

But, as pollen makes no distinction between wild and domesticated olive trees, the expert in Ancient Near Eastern Culture also uses archaeological and archaeological-botanical findings detected in each area to draw a timeline.

Although on the Greek island of Crete the pollen fossil points to a crop more than 6,500 years ago, it is not known whether it was an isolated event or whether the knowledge of the Levant had been learned, but the combination with the findings in northern Israel allows us to place the beginning of cultivation here.

Such as an olive endocarp (stone) that appeared in a well in the village of Kfar Samir, the oldest direct evidence from the late Neolithic era, more than 7,000 years ago, in the entire Mediterranean.

The olive charcoal found at the Tel Tsaf site, dated at a nearby date, and the olive skin that remains after the oil is extracted, are other forms of archaeological-botanical evidence.

The thousand-year old oil presses discovered in the area, a pool that appeared at the bottom of the sea dated more than 6,000 years ago and molecules of the fruit found in a ceramic vessel seven centuries ago are other archaeological contributions that also help Langgut place the origin of the plant to this area.

The resulting map, she says, shows that olive cultivation began here and spread to the northern Mediterranean: to Greece about 4,800 years ago, to Italy about 3,400 years ago and to Anatolia about 3,200 years ago, the study published last year in the scientific journal The Holocene concludes.

Its cultivation allowed for the expansion of this species beyond its natural habitat and today the oil stands alone as the star of the Mediterranean.

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