Ancient Olives

Ancient Olives

Planted by the Romans in Puglia, Italy

The millenary olive groves of the Puglia region in Italy’s heel are economic and cultural relics of antiquity and modernity alike. These trees define a symbiotic subsistence between man and nature that has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. 

The 50-60 millions trees scattered throughout the region were originally planted by the Romans well before the Common Era.(1) The Romans saw the economic potential in the unique olive fruit and sought to plant trees throughout all the lands in their domain. Some consider the vast groves of the Puglia region to be “the oldest extant arboreal agrarian landscape in the world.”(2)

The cultural significance of olives can be traced back to Greek and Roman mythology. The Roman goddess Minerva is thought to have created the first olive tree, similar to Athena in Greek legend.

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"The 50-60 millions trees scattered throughout the region were originally planted by the Romans well before the Common Era."

 

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It is said that the founders of Rome, twin brothers Remus and Romulus, were born under an olive tree, an indication of the great prosperity to come. Similarly, olive trees in the Old Testament symbolized peace, abundance, and purity; the most notable example being the dove returning to Noah’s ark with an olive branch, alluding to an end to the great flood.

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Initially, olives and their oil were not used for edible consumption. Oil gathered from pressing the fruit was used to anoint priests, pharaohs, and slathered on wealthy bodies to keep good hygiene. With time, this ‘golden liquid’ was utilized in every facet of ancient Mediterranean life, from fuel and food to medicine and cosmetics.(3)

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The importance of olive oil can be linguistically traced to our modern-day speech. Our English word ‘oil’ is derived from the Latin word, ŏlīva, which literally means ‘olive tree’, which comes from the Greek word, ŏlĕum, or ‘olive oil.’ There are many other languages whose general word for oil can be etymologically linked back to oil specifically derived from the olive fruit.(4)



"Our English word ‘oil’ is derived from the Latin word, ŏlīva, which literally means ‘olive tree’, which comes from the Greek word, ŏlĕum, or ‘olive oil.’"

 

And it is such a perfect fruit. Although unbearably bitter if eaten raw or unripe, once cured they are truly delectable, packed with the numerous health benefits of monounsaturated fats the ‘Mediterranean diet’ is renowned for.

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Throughout Italy, but particularly in Puglia, olive oil is a rudimentary facet of the lifestyle. 40% of Italy’s total olive oil production is sourced from the region.(1) Cultivating olives is a means of work and sustenance - with trees defining the landscape, oil defining the culture.

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"Their gnarled forms reflect centuries of shaping, generation after generation of human hands goading the trees toward maximum productivity."

 

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Their gnarled forms reflect centuries of shaping, generation after generation of human hands goading the trees toward maximum productivity. The growth-habit was not fundamentally altered by the more banal elements observed in other ancient forests - wind, water, fire, altitude. In the structure of these incredible trees, humans were nature's carving tool.

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Notes: 

Written by - Kendall Strautman
Photography by - Ricardo Nagaoka & Ryan Neil 

References: 

(1) The Thinking Traveller, "Puglia and its 60 million olive trees: Geography of Puglia" Accessed 07-08-18 via this link
(2) Ciola, Gianfranco. "Puglia's fabulous olive trees amidst history, nature, and agriculture" Accessed 07-08-18 via this link 
(3) Evoolution Blog. 2014, "Oil in the Ancient World: Ancient Rome" Accessed 07-10-18 via this link 
(4) Rupp, Rebecca. 2016. "The Bitter Truth About Olives." National Geographic. Accessed 07-10-18 via this link 
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