Let the B-52s and “big hair” be our musical guides to Mesopotamia and the end of the last Ice Age. In ancient Mesopotamia, which covered parts of Syria, Turkey and most of Iraq, cultivating olives represented life or death, success or failure; and as I’ve shown in previous articles, those sentiments still hold true today. From ancient Mesopotamia to the modern Mediterranean countries their olive industries and olive oil trading positions were and still are worth defending or promoting. It is still life or death, success or failure.
Back when we were kids our teachers taught us that civilization started in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and that the lands were fertile because of the rivers. The story is partially true and incomplete. For several millennia after the end of the last Ice Age, the now dry areas east and south of the Mediterranean, were fertile, grassy and somewhat forested. There were only a few million people on the whole planet at that time and they foraged for their daily food. Eventually some of the foragers found nice spots to settle down where the year round temperatures were pleasant and less extreme. One of the places people settled was along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia. At the time of initial settlement the land was not as dry as it became. People settled because the area provided easy access to water for large scale farming and both rivers were navigable which allowed for the trade of a variety of foods, goods, and luxuries.
One of the earliest cultivated crops was the olive. From archaeological discovery to mythological legend the earliest olive tree is said to be a thorny bush with insignificant fruit. It is thought that the thorny bush that the early olive grew on was probably cross-bred with other early olive varieties. The other early olive varieties were probably less abundant but with cross-breeding and grafting a new and highly valuable crop was born, and with that, a powerful source of revenue was developed.
The olive, with it’s abundant products, became more valuable over time, as the Earth grew warmer and parts of the Mediterranean grew drier. Agriculture and trade remained sustainable in the former Mesopotamia because the olive was hardy and did well in the changing climate and sometimes saline soils.
No one is certain how we came to have all the cultivated olive varieties we now have but the people of Mesopotamia discovered that the fruit of the olive tree was edible and when pressed, the oil from olives made an easy-burning fuel, a great medium for mixing with other ingredients, a healing and beautifying skin lotion, and lots of other uses. It has even been suggested that early masonry projects, like the Egyptian pyramids were slid into place using olive oil. Certainly olives and olive oil were a major “find” for ancient people and possession of olive trees and olive products came to separate prosperous societies from those that struggled.
From its humble post-Ice Age beginnings in Mesopotamia, the olive and its subsequent industry, has moved far beyond the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The hardy olive and its healthful and valuable crop is circling the globe with olives being commercially grown on all continents but Antarctica. I’d like to thank the early farmers who performed the first olive growing experiments and let them know we will continue to improve and see flourish the world’s olive industry.
May the sun shine through your branches.