One of the Oldest Examples of Nonnative Olive Cultivation Uncovered in Jordan Valley

Archaeological remains in the Central Jordan Valley show evidence of the oldest example of olives being farmed outside their naturally-occurring range.
Yosef Garfinkel
Jun. 22, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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New evi­dence has emerged of cul­ti­vated olive groves dat­ing back 7,000 years in the Central Jordan Valley, about 32 kilo­me­ters south of the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel.

A new study has inves­ti­gated ancient set­tle­ments and their remains in an area known as Tel Tsaf, find­ing that there was a pros­per­ous and flour­ish­ing soci­ety at the time ded­i­cated to grow­ing wheat, bar­ley and olives.

It is the ear­li­est known evi­dence of olives being farmed out­side their nat­u­rally-occur­ring range.- Dafna Langgout, researcher, Tel Aviv University at Institute of Archeology

According to the arche­ol­o­gists who worked on the research pub­lished by Scientific Report, it is one of the ear­li­est exam­ples of humans grow­ing olives.

To describe it, [we can say] that it is the ear­li­est known evi­dence of olives being farmed out­side their nat­u­rally-occur­ring range,” Dafna Langgout, from the Institute of Archeology at Tel Aviv University and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:2,300-Year-Old Olive Oil Lamp Unearthed in the West Bank

Among hun­dred of charred wood sam­ples col­lected on the site, arche­ol­o­gists iden­ti­fied many olive remains.

While seeds and fruits found in a spe­cific loca­tion may come from other regions, it is believed that recov­er­ing the remains of wood means that the plant must have grown in the vicin­ity, the researchers explained in the paper.

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Tellingly, the Central Jordan Valley is located out­side the nat­ural dis­tri­b­u­tion area of wild olives,” they wrote. Consequently, the recov­ery of charred olive wood remains at Tel Tsaf pro­vides strong evi­dence for olive orchards near the site. A few char­coal remains of olive as well as some olive stones were also reported in pre­vi­ous stud­ies.”

In neigh­bor­ing regions, wild olive trees used to thrive with many other species, such as oaks, tamarisks, white aca­cia and pis­ta­chios. In Tel Tsaf, though, the olive trees were imported by the local pop­u­la­tion, a phe­nom­e­non which also shows that olive plant­ing knowl­edge had been estab­lished.

The study focuses on arche­o­log­i­cal and botan­i­cal evi­dence, which sug­gests that olive cul­ti­va­tion began in north­ern Israel (Carmel coast and the Galilee) almost 8,000 years ago.”

The sci­en­tists believe that it mainly con­cerned wild olive species.

A few cen­turies later, at the begin­ning of the Middle Chalcolithic period… the set­tlers of Tel Tsaf engaged in full-fledged olive cul­ti­va­tion, indi­cated by their loca­tion out­side Olea Europaeas nat­ural dis­tri­b­u­tion,” researchers wrote. To accom­plish this geo­graph­i­cal shift, a trans­fer of both knowl­edge and genetic olive mate­r­ial from north­ern Israel to the Central Jordan Valley must have occurred.”

The research found that the local pop­u­la­tion was deeply involved in agri­cul­ture, hav­ing built large struc­tures to stock food, mostly cere­als. The study’s authors explained that each build­ing of the set­tle­ments had four to five rounded silos, amount­ing to a 20 to 30 tons stor­age capac­ity.

They greatly exceeded the inhab­i­tants’ needs, indi­cat­ing the oper­a­tions of a com­plex eco­nomic sys­tem of sur­plus and wealth accu­mu­la­tion,” the researchers wrote.

See Also:North Africans Ate Olives 100,000 Years Ago, Evidence Suggests

Such com­plex­ity is due to a sophis­ti­cated sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, pos­si­bly includ­ing fer­til­iz­ers, irri­ga­tion sys­tems and field man­age­ment prac­tices, such as incor­po­rat­ing fal­low peri­ods into the crop rota­tions,” they added.

That also shows a soci­ety that could plant new crops, such as olive trees, the yields of which would have required years to develop.

According to Langgout, the Tel Tsaf soci­ety was unusu­ally wealthy com­pared to oth­ers, liv­ing in a mode of sur­vival.”

They had time to invest in some­thing with a long-term invest­ment with a rel­a­tively delayed return,” the researchers wrote. It is pos­si­ble that a fruit tree plan­ta­tion would not assume its full yield poten­tial within the short adult life­time of the planter 7000-years-ago, due to the long juve­nile period of some of the fruit tree types.”

The researchers believe that olives con­sti­tuted one lux­ury item that could have played a role in trad­ing with other pop­u­la­tions.

Cultivated olive and fig trees pro­duced prod­ucts with long shelf lives, like table olives, olive oil, and dried figs and, there­fore, are highly suit­able for long-dis­tance trade and tax­a­tion, lead­ing even­tu­ally to the accu­mu­la­tion of wealth and a more com­plex social-eco­nom­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion,” Langgout said.

Even though ear­lier stud­ies con­ducted in adja­cent areas of the region have shown the exis­tence of ancient olive mills at the time, researchers can not tell if any olive presses were present in Tel Tsaf.

While olive oil pro­duc­tion would have been pos­si­ble in Tel Tsaf then, there is no cer­tainty nor any hint on how the prod­uct would have been stored.

We have no evi­dence at the Tel Tsaf site of olive oil pro­duc­tion,” Langgout said, not­ing that arche­ol­o­gists did not find olive waste or olive oil presses at the time.



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