We started eating olives 500 years after discovering olive oil

olive pits haifa beach

The earliest evidence found to date concerning the production of olives for eating, dating back some 6,600 years, has been found at the submerged chalcolithic site Hishulei Carmel, off the coast at Haifa.

The discovery is described in a new study published in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports by researchers from the University of Haifa, the Technion, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University, the Volcani Institute, and other research institutions in Israel and abroad. This discovery predates by around 4,000 years the oldest evidence of the production of olives for eating uncovered until now.

“This latest discovery completes the chain of use of olive trees, beginning with 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,” explains Dr. Ehud Galili of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who led the research.

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. However, the date when olives began to be eaten has remained a mystery.

“Historical documents attribute the first consumption of eating olives in Europe to the middle of the first millennium BCE, and in Egypt to the classical period following the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,” notes Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz of the Hebrew University.

The current study was undertaken at the Hishulei Carmel site (named after a nearby factory), which 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. Remnants from this period are now found from the shoreline and to a distance of 120 meters, and at a depth of up to four meters under the sea.

It is believed that in this period the sea level was around three to four meters lower than today, and the coast was some 200-300 meters west of its current location, so that the site was situated on the coast in its day. No remains of residential homes have been found at the site, but the excavations have uncovered round utensils with a diameter of 1.5 meters, made from collected stones.

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According to the researchers, these utensils were used as wells or storage pits. During the underwater surveys, the researchers found two oval stone structures containing thousands of saturated olive pits, most of them complete and excellently preserved. In order to identify the use made of the olives, research was undertaken by a multidisciplinary team of archeologists and botanists from 11 research institutions in Israel and abroad.

“As soon as we found the olive pits, we could see that they were different to 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,” explains Dr. Dafna Langgut of Tel Aviv University. The researchers compared the findings to pits and utensils found by Dr. Galil several years ago at another underwater site – 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.

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. As noted, the pits found at the Hishulei Carmel site were mostly whole, and no peel or other evidence was found suggesting the production of oil. Moreover, in the remnants of the pits at Kfar Samir the researchers found grains of olive pollen, which is also found today in debris at olive presses. This pollen was not found in the utensils uncovered at the Hishulei Carmel site.

Another factor supporting the assertion that the utensils were intended for the production of olives for eating is the proximity of the sire to the sea. As noted, at the time the site 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.

The researchers believe, it is not logical to suggest that the facilities were used for the storage of fresh olives. Conversely, the coastal location could have provided access to vital ingredients used in the pickling of olives, such as seawater and sea salt. As part of their study, the researchers undertook a controlled examination in a food laboratory at the Technion and managed to cure olives using seawater. “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,” suggests Prof. Ayala Fishman of the Technion.

“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,” adds Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron of the University of Haifa. Wild olives from Mt. Carmel, and possibly olives grown in ancient groves, probably provided the raw material for the production of olive oil and olives for eating,” comment botanists Dr. Simcha Lev-Yadon, Dr. Oz Barazani, and Dr. Arnon Dag.

“We did not find any residential buildings 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. These sites may have served as ancient “industrial zones” 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,” concludes Dr. Galili.

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