Since ancient times, the olive tree has commanded respect and inspired endless rituals and traditions. Its history, which seems to go back as far as the earth itself, is bound up with that of the Mediterranean. Native to Asia Minor, it spread to the Mediterranean region over 6,000 years ago. The Egyptians, who consumed large quantities of olive oil during the time of the Pharaohs, brought it from Crete and used it during funeral and purification rites. But it was the Phoenicians who, in the sixteenth century B.C., began to plant olive trees throughout all of Greece and eventually the Mediterranean basin, where olive orchards and mills multiplied along with the Romans.
Originally, olives were planted and cultivated mainly for the use of their oil as a light source. Over 70% of ancient oil production was for light and fuel, 20% was for medicinal purposes and less than 10% was for food. Over time as cultivation spread and production methods became more efficient, olive oil was used more and more for culinary purposes. Olive oil was the green gold of gods, kings, and queens before it became a daily staple for most Mediterranean populations. It was a magical substance, a source of riches and power, a symbol of longevity, fertility, and wisdom.
For thousands of years, man has cultivated and manipulated the varieties of olives in order to produce the most rewarding of olive oils. This constant manipulation leaves unclear which varieties came from which other varieties. Some dominant varieties still exist and are predominant to certain areas. For example, the Arbequina, Picudo, and Hojiblanca varieties are dominant on Spanish territories. In France, the Picholine,Acolana, Tanche, and Verdale remain most prevalent. And in Italy the Leccino, Frantoio, Bianca, Cerasuola, and Moraiolo varieties dominate. Yet over the past several hundred years, olives varieties have spread to South America, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as other territories worldwide. Many of these olive varieties and their origins remain unclear. Some research is now being done using gene mapping techniques to figure out the olive family tree.