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In earliest discovery to date, Israeli archaeologist find olives eaten 6,600 years ago

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Until now, the oldest evidence of olive production for eating dated back some 4,000 years

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In an unexpected discovery, Israeli archaeologists have found that olives were eaten as far back as 6,600 years ago – the earliest evidence to date.

The find was made by archaeologists and researchers from the University of Haifa, Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University, the Volcani Institute, and other research institutions in Israel and abroad, who discovered this early production of olives for eating at the submerged chalcolithic site Hishulei Carmel, off the coast at Haifa. 

Until now, the oldest evidence of olive production for eating dated back some 4,000 years. 

According to Dr Ehud Galili of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who led the research, “this latest discovery completes the chain of use of olive trees, beginning with the use of the wood for burning, through the production of oil some 7,000 years ago, and on to our finding, where the fruit was used for consumption.”

Galili went on to explain that olives are a key component of the human diet, culinary culture, and economy of the Mediterranean region. 

“Archeological findings and written testimony shows that olive oil was used extensively for consumption, lighting, worship, hygiene, and cosmetic purposes in ancient times,” he said. 

But in their research, the team made it clear that the date of when olives became a staple food has remained a mystery. 

Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz of the Hebrew University pointed out that “historical documents attribute the first consumption of eating olives in Europe to the middle of the first millennium BCE, in Egypt to the classical period following the conquest of Alexander the Great so that all the evidence until now centered on the middle of the first millennium BCE.”

The study, the universities said, was undertaken at the Hishulei Carmel site, which is named after a nearby factory, and is situated approximately 500 meters south of the southernmost beaches of Haifa. 

“The site dates back to the Middle Chalcolithic period, some 6,600 years ago,” a joint statement said. “Remnants from this period have been found along the shoreline and at a distance of 120 meters, and at a depth of up to four meters under the sea.” 

For Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University, as soon as the olive pits were found, “we could see that they were different from those used to produce olive oil. In debris from oil production, the pits are mostly crushed, whereas most of the ones were found were whole.” 

The researchers said that during this period, it’s believed that the sea level was around three to four meters lower than it is today, adding that “the coast was some 200-300 meters west of its current location so that the site was situated on the coast in its day.” 

They stressed that no remains of residential homes have been found at the site, but that excavations “have uncovered round utensils with a diameter of 1.5 meters, made from collected stones… These utensils were used as wells or storage pits.” 

During underwater dives at the site, the researchers also found two oval stone structures containing thousands of saturated olive pits, most of them complete and excellently preserved. In a bid to find out more about what these olives were used for a multidisciplinary team of archeologists and botanists from 11 research institutions in Israel and abroad were called in.

Galil reiterated that no residential buildings were discovered at the Hishulei Carmel site or at Kfar Samir, “but we found pits, round utensils, stone grinding basins, sieves made of twigs – and now the olive production facilities.”

He explained that the researchers compared the findings to pits and utensils that he’d found several years ago at another underwater site known as Kfar Samir, off the coast by Dado Beach.

“Kfar Samir is an older site, dating back 7,000 – 7,500 years, and situated some 1,800 meters from Hishulei Carmel,” he explained. “The utensils found at Kfar Samir contained crushed olive pits, as well as olive peel, and were identified as debris from the production of olive oil.”

However, the researchers said that the pits found at the Hishulei Carmel site were mostly whole and had no peel or had other evidence suggesting they were used for the production of oil.

Interestingly, the researchers noted that the remnants of pits found at Kfar Samir also had grains of olive pollen, which something often found today in debris at olive presses. 

But this pollen was not found in the utensils uncovered at the Hishulei Carmel site.

Above Image: Olive pits as they were discovered. (Photo Credit: Ehud Galili)
Featured Image: Olive pits from Hishulei Carmel. (Photo Credit: Ehud Galili)

The team also pointed out another reason as to why these utensils were most probably intended for producing olives for eating – the proximity of the sire to the sea. 

As mentioned, when the site was in use 6,600 years ago, it was on the coastline. 

“A coastal location does not permit the storage of olives, due to high humidity which leads to the rapid development of mold,” they said. “As such. it is not logical to suggest that the facilities were used for the storage of fresh olives.”
However, the coastal location could have provided access to vital ingredients used in the pickling of olives, such as seawater and sea salt, and as part of their study, the researchers did a “controlled examination” in a food laboratory at the Haifa Technion and managed to cure olives using seawater. 

Prof. Ayala Fishman of the Technionemphasized that “the pickling of olives in the utensils discovered could have taken place after the fruit was washed repeatedly in seawater in order to reduce the bitterness, and then soaked in seawater, possibly with the addition of sea salt.”

Adding to this,  Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of Haifa University said that the lack of olive pollen grains in the utensils, which are usually found in olive debris, “supports the hypothesis that the olives were washed repeatedly, as is customary to this day when pickling lives.”

According to botanists Dr Simcha Lev-Yadon, Dr Oz Barazani, and Dr Arnon Dag, “wild olives from Mount Carmel, and possibly olives grown in ancient groves, may have provided the raw material for the production of olive oil and olives for eating.”

Concluding, Galil said that although these sites may not have been residential, they “may have served as ancient ‘industrial zone’ for the settlements along the Carmel Coast in the Chalcolithic period, beginning to produce olive oil around 7,000 years ago and olives for eating 6,600 years ago.”

The discovery is featured in a new study published in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports.

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