ABSTRACT: Our knowledge of the origins of olive tree domestication in the Middle East and on the processes governing its extension and persistence in different vegetation types from prehistory through antiquity to modern times derives from diverse sources, spanning the biological sciences to the humanities. Nonetheless, it lacks a robust overview that may lead to floating interpretations. This is especially true in the Middle East, considered as the cradle of agriculture, and where the evolutionary history of this emblematic tree is intertwined with that of civilizations. Olive fruit, oil and wood have been, since Prehistoric times, characteristic products of the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In the domestic economy of these countries, the olive tree gradually became a traditional tree crop since the first oil extraction, through the emergence of regional commerce that accompanied the rise and fall of early Near-Middle Eastern urbanism, until the development of modern trade, with an oil production estimated at circa 3000000 tons per year. The rising importance of the olive tree in human life has turned the tree into an endless source of fascination in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, a symbol and a sacred tree, widely cited in the Bibles, the Koran, and in ancient literature. Here we argue that advances in radiocarbon chronology, palaeobotany, genetics, and archaeology-history have profoundly refined the history of olive trees in the Middle East. This review shows that the heartland of primary olive domestication must be enlarged to the Levant and not only focus on the Jordan Valley. The domestication of the olive tree is a long and ongoing process, linked to the early production of oil and the development of the olive trade. We also suggest that the olive tree became a particular icon, a sacred tree, during the Biblical period in the Levant.
Biological Reviews 04/2012; 87(4):885-899. · 9.07 Impact Factor