We know that ancient populations really liked olive oil, and it’s not that uncommon to find oil-filled pots from Ancient Greece. However, archaeologists were really excited to find that pressed olive oil goes as back as 8,000 years ago. Researchers found residues of the Mediterranean-diet staple on ancient clay pots dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.

8,000 year old olive oil was found in Israel. This is the earliest evidence of olive oil production. Credit: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

“This is the earliest evidence of the use of olive oil in the country, and perhaps the entire Mediterranean basin,” Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov, excavation directors at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement.

Today, Spain acounts 43.8% of world production of olive oil, while Italy accounts for 21.5% of the world’s production and Greece comes in at 12.1%. But in ancient times, things were very different. It is not clear when and where the olive tree was domesticated, but the word comes from Asia Minor (today’s Turkey and Syria), so it’s likely that the origin of olive oil lies there. Before this study, the earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olive was assumed to have started before 4000 BC.

Now, we have evidence to place olive oil production 2 millennia before that – in 6000 BC. The team actually discovered the clay vessels by accident. The government required an excavation at En Zippori in the Lower Galilee region of northern Israel before the Netivei Israel Co. could widen Highway 79. The researchers unexpectedly found the pottery during the excavation, which lasted from 2011 to 2013. It’s not uncommon for this to happen – sometimes, construction works take place in area with rich history, and archaeologists are called to ensure that nothing will be destroyed. When Milevski and Getzov found the vessels, they were understandably excited and wanted to find out what was the content of the vessel.

Olive Oil is one of the healthiest sources of fats. Image via Olive Oil Excellence.

I’m gonna be honest with you… I’d be tempted to just taste it. But alas, science doesn’t work like that – you can’t just go tasting stuff from 8,000 years ago, no matter how cool it sounds. The real analysis showed that the pottery contains olive oil, and the oil is actually very similar to the one produced today. In all, the researchers studied 20 pottery vessels, including two that date back to about 5,800 B.C., indicating that the oil was well preserved inside the vessels for almost 8,000 years. This confirms the theory that the olive tree was domesticated in 6000 BC.

“Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive speciesthat was domesticated and joined grain and legumes — the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then,” Milevski and Getzov said.

Olive oil is  the main cooking oil in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, also used as a dressing for salads and even as a skin treatment. It’s also one of the healthiest sources of fats in nature, with study indicating that it can may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fats if it replaces other types of saturated fats (not in addition).

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