Almost every pantry has bottles of olive oil because it is monounsaturated and the most healthful type of oil available. Its popularity in the Middle East, however, is far from being new. Now, the earliest evidence – from about 6,600 years ago – for the production of olives for table food and not only for oil has been discovered by Israeli archaeologists at a site that is now underwater off the southern coast of Haifa. Throughout the Mediterranean basin, the olive tree is considered an emblematic and economically important species. To identify the use of the olive pits – most of them intact – that were found, a study was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists and botanists from 11 research institutions in Israel and abroad.
The evidence was found at the flooded Chalcolithic site called Carmel Forging. The Israeli-led researchers have just published their study in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports under the title “Early production of table olives at a mid‑7th millennium BP submerged site off the Carmel coast,” which is called that because it is located in front of the plant of the same name. The olive pit remains were located from the shoreline to about 120 meters into the Mediterranean and to a depth of up to four meters below sea level.
It is estimated that about 6,600 years ago, the sea level was about three to four meters lower, and the shoreline was about 200 to 300 meters away from its current location, so the site is located near the ancient shoreline. No evidence of dwellings was found at the site, as these are 1.5-meter-round round installations, built of composite stones, which the researchers estimate were used as wells or storage pits. During the underwater surveys, researchers found two oval stone structures with thousands of water-saturated olive pits, most of them intact.
The archaeologists come from the University of Haifa, Tel Aviv University (TAU), the Volcani Institute, and other research institutions. Their discovery predates the ancient evidence that was known until now about the production of edible olives by about 4,000 years. “The latest discovery completes for us the sequence of use of olive wood, from the use of this wood for heating, through the production of oil about 7,000 years ago to our findings, in which olive was used for food,” said lead researcher Dr. Ehud Galili of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa.
The olive is a basic ingredient in the human diet, culinary culture and Mediterranean economy. Archaeological finds and written documents indicate the widespread use of olive oil for food, lighting, worship, hygiene and cosmetics in ancient times, but the date of the beginning of the consumption of edible olives remains a mystery. “Historical documents attribute the beginning of the consumption of edible olives in Europe to the middle of the first millennium BCE and in Egypt to the classical period, after the conquest of Alexander the Great – so the evidence so far is from the first half of the first millennium CE,” said Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“As soon as we found the pits, we saw that they were different from crushed pits from which olive oil was produced,” said TAU’s Dr. Dafna Langgut. “The the ones we found were intact.” They compared the olive pits with those found by Galili in another underwater site off elsewhere off the Haifa coast several years ago.
In 2014, an archaeological team headed by Galili and Dr. Deborah Cvikel, found a well belonging to a Neolithic village at a site known as Kfar Samir. It was exceptional because unlike most archaeological sites in Israel, the village is about 200 meters (218 yards) offshore and located about 16 feet underwater. The site was older – between 7,000 and 7,500 years old – than Carmel Forging site and about 1,800 meters away.
The remains discovered at Samir were crushed olive pits, along with olive peels and were identified as waste of olive time production and included pollen grains from olive trees; no such powder was found in the facilities now found at the Carmel Forging site.
Another characteristic that tipped the scales in favor of the determination that the facilities were intended for the production of edible olives was the proximity to the beach. The Carmel Forging site was, as mentioned, close to the beach. The proximity to the beach does not allow storage of olives due to the high humidity that causes mold to form in a short time, so, according to the researchers, it does not make sense that the facilities were used to store fresh olives.
But the proximity to the sea could provide access to essential ingredients for the process of pickling olives, such as seawater and sea salt. During the study, the researchers conducted a controlled experiment in the Food Research Laboratory at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and succeeded in pickling olives in seawater. “The pickling of the olives in the discovered facilities could have been done only after repeated rinsing in seawater to relieve the bitterness and then soaking in seawater,” said Prof. Ayelet Fishman of the Technion.
”We did not find any residential buildings at the forging sites of Carmel and Kfar Samir,” concluded Galili, “but we did find wells, round installations, filters made of twigs and now the olive production facilities. It is possible that these sites were a kind of ‘industrial area’ of the Carmelite inhabitants, who started producing olive oil about 7,000 years ago and edible olives about 6,600 years ago.”