North Africans Ate Olives 100,000 Years Ago, Evidence Suggests

Archaeological evidence suggests that people living on Morocco’s Atlantic coast ate wild olives and used the tree's wood and pits as fuel.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Mar. 31, 2022 13:40 UTC

New research sug­gests that ancient humans in Africa had con­tact with the olive tree and used its branches and fruits about 100,000 years ago.

The study, pub­lished by NaturePlants and authored by a team of inter­na­tional sci­en­tists, showed evi­dence of wild olive trees in the Rabat-Temara caves, a highly rel­e­vant archae­o­log­i­cal site on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

We did not expect to find olives, olive pits and seeds, nor did we know that the olive tree was present in this loca­tion… That was a bit of a sur­prise.- Laurent Marquer, botanist, University of Innsbruck

The researchers unearthed some of the old­est traces of wild olive trees in the Mediterranean, and the old­est in Africa.

Previous stud­ies had found olive remains in Israel, at the Acheulean site Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, dated approx­i­mately 790,000 years ago, with other find­ings in Greece dated around 60,000 years ago.

See Also:Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Olive Oil in Central Europe

Only around 6,000 years ago, Neolithic human groups began cul­ti­vat­ing the olive trees and using them as a source of food, fuel, light­ing, med­i­cine and cos­met­ics.

The researchers did not expect to find such ancient olives in Morocco. Instead, the study aimed at under­stand­ing which plants were col­lected by early homo sapi­ens, a true chal­lenge con­sid­er­ing that such remains are rarely pre­served over time.

We focused on those that could have been pre­served by the com­bus­tion process,” Laurent Marquer, co-author of the study and botanist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, told Olive Oil Times. And there, we found some bones, shells, plants and olives.”

We did not expect to find olives, olive pits and seeds, nor did we know that the olive tree was present in this loca­tion, even more dur­ing the last glacial period,” he added. That was a bit of a sur­prise.”


Location of the Rabat-Temara caves

Of the char­coal frag­ments iden­ti­fied by the researchers, 72 per­cent were the wild vari­ety of Olea europaea. The sci­en­tists also inves­ti­gated seed frag­ments, 81 per­cent of which were charred olive stone. Charcoal from wild olives was also found at a nearby exca­va­tion site.

This sug­gests the wide­spread use of wild olives dur­ing the Aterian Middle Stone Age (MSA) in the Rabat-Temara region,” the researchers wrote. There is no doubt that wild olives were used by pre­his­toric hunter-gath­er­ers.”

The burned olive branches did not carry whole fruits, but the fruit frag­ments were found in the same fire­place. This led sci­en­tists to believe the olives were eaten, and the pits were thrown into the fire.

While the branches served as a suit­able fuel, if com­plete with fruits, the result­ing intox­i­cat­ing fumes and the fruit’s mois­ture would have hin­dered the result.


Fossilized olive pit charcoal burned at the Rabat-Temara caves

This also leads the researchers to believe that those olives might have been a key source of food.

We found spe­cific break­age pat­terns in the sam­ples of the frag­mented olive stones, which were bro­ken and charred,” Marquer said. And we assume that in order to break them, they prob­a­bly had to con­sume them first.”

While there is no cer­tainty about why the olive pits had been bro­ken, researchers noted that it hap­pened with a pur­pose. They assumed that the pits were used to cre­ate a residue to enhance com­bus­tion.


Olive stones and their seeds have a high lignin and oil con­tent,” the researchers wrote. Therefore, the crushed olive stone residue would result in slow com­bus­tion with long-last­ing flames, favored for cook­ing. When dried, the residue pro­duces smoke­less flames, a major advan­tage for pre­his­toric groups liv­ing in caves.”

The study’s authors also noted how other plants could eas­ily have been used as fuel in the same area, includ­ing oak or juniper.


Fossilized wood charcoal burned at the Rabat-Temara caves

Still, only a few char­coal frag­ments of those plants have been iden­ti­fied, cor­rob­o­rat­ing the idea that the olive tree was a pre­ferred choice. This would also mean that it was suf­fi­ciently abun­dant in the region.

Marquer explained that other researchers have devel­oped mod­el­ing plat­forms to bet­ter esti­mate where olive trees could have thrived dur­ing the last glacial period.

Based on this, we see there are essen­tially two areas where the olive tree could have lived: the west­ern Mediterranean, in Spain and north­ern Morocco, and on the easter basin, in Israel,” Marquer said. There, we know that the olive tree had the con­di­tions to grow.”

The early use of wild olives in Africa by Aterian MSA groups from approx­i­mately 100,000 years ago might rep­re­sent improve­ments in cook­ing, tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions for wood pro­cess­ing and social orga­ni­za­tion, among other aspects,” the authors of the study wrote.

This find­ing pro­vides new insights into the under­stand­ing of Aterian MSA hunter-gath­erer economies and com­pletes the story of the iconic olive tree in the Mediterranean,” they con­cluded.

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