Sicily's Monumental Olive Trees Provide Window Into Island’s History

Sicily’s oldest olive trees have stories to tell. From farmers overcoming adversity to the island becoming a trade hub, olive oil production played an essential part.

By Kenaz Filan
Jul. 20, 2021 08:21 UTC

Sicily’s soil and cli­mate are ideal for olive cul­ti­va­tion, and wild olive trees have long grown on the island.

Now researchers are learn­ing more about the his­tory of olive oil on Sicily from archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence – and from the ancient olive trees still grow­ing through­out the coun­try­side.

Believed to be the island’s old­est olive tree, the Olivo di Innari is also its largest. At 19.6 meters in cir­cum­fer­ence, this 2,081-year-old tree was planted when Sicily was a Roman province.

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Sicily’s smaller farm­ers labored under oner­ous taxes and duties from the Romans and their local gov­er­nors. At the time, Sicily was known pri­mar­ily for its wheat and wool exports.

Some spec­u­late that a hard-pressed local farmer planted Innari in hopes of cash­ing in on the Roman market’s rapa­cious demand for olive oil. Today Pettineo, the town where Innari still grows, remains an agri­cul­tural cen­ter and is mainly well known for its local olive oil.


Olivo di Innari (Rosario Schicchi / Francesco M. Raimondo)

One mil­len­nium after Olivo di Innari was planted, around the year 1000 C.E., the his­toric vil­lage of Calacte (from the Greek for Fair Isle”) was razed in the Arab-Byzantine wars.

However, the fight­ers spared an enor­mous cen­turies-old olive tree. Today, the 12.9‑meter round, 1,369-year-old Olivo de Predica still stands in the rebuilt vil­lage, which the 11th-cen­tury sur­vivors named Caroniam, or new house.”

While Sicily’s old­est olive trees are around 1,000 to 2,000 years old, soil cores near Lago di Pergusa in cen­tral Sicily show a spike in olive pollen between 3,000 and 3,200 years ago.

This coin­cides with the arrival of the Sicels and Sicanians who gave the island its name. Lake Pergusa is out­side the wild olive tree’s nor­mal coastal dis­tri­b­u­tion, so it appears the new­com­ers brought olive cut­tings with them.

The Olivo di Nicoletta, a few miles from Lake Pergusa, is smaller than the Predica tree at 7.9 meters round. It is also a few cen­turies younger, at an esti­mated 828 years old.

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When Nicoletta was planted, the king of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI was seiz­ing power over the island and its lucra­tive olive oil and fab­ric indus­tries. Along with pro­vid­ing fuel for lamps, lam­pante olive oil was also used to lubri­cate the looms used to man­u­fac­ture the fab­ric.

Meanwhile, Avola, a small town in Sicily’s Siracusa province, is home to a 1,684-year-old olive tree with a mas­sive 15.5‑meter cir­cum­fer­ence, the Olivo di Contrada La Gebbia.

At the time of La Gebbia’s plant­ing, fourth cen­tury Sicily’s econ­omy was boom­ing, in large part, due to the grow­ing olive oil trade between Sicily and the rest of the Empire.

Old as all these trees may be, archae­ol­o­gists have found even ear­lier evi­dence of Sicilian olive oil pro­duc­tion.

In Castelluccio, a rural town 32 kilo­me­ters from Avola, recent research has pro­duced evi­dence that sets the ear­li­est date for sys­tem­atic oil pro­duc­tion in Italy back 700 years.

In 2018, his­tory pro­fes­sor Davide Tanasi of the University of South Florida reported a chem­i­cal analy­sis of frag­ments from a 4,000-year-old stor­age vase found in an early Bronze Age vil­lage out­side Castelluccio. The frag­ments showed traces of oleic and linoleic acids, sig­na­tures of olive oil.

Before this find, the ear­li­est Italian olive oil sig­na­tures came from 3,300-year-old pot­tery frag­ments found on the south­ern main­land.

The Castelluccio pot shows that the Sicels and Sicanians did not bring olive oil pro­duc­tion to Sicily but instead took over an indus­try that had been ongo­ing for cen­turies.


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