New Evidence Suggests Olive and Fig Trees Were Cultivated as Early as 7,000 Years Ago

Archeologists excavating at the Chalcolithic site of Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, Israel, have discovered one of the earliest examples of fruit tree cultivation worldwide, demonstrating that olive (Olea europaea) and common fig (Ficus carica) horticulture was practiced as early as 7,000 years ago.

The village of Tel Tsaf, Israel: an overview of Area C with courtyard buildings, comprising rectangular and rounded rooms and rounded silos. Image credit: Y. Garfinkel.

The village of Tel Tsaf, Israel: an overview of Area C with courtyard buildings, comprising rectangular and rounded rooms and rounded silos. Image credit: Y. Garfinkel.

Today, the olive is considered the most prominent and probably the economically most important fruit tree of the Mediterranean Basin.

Cultivation caused its distribution to expand into areas otherwise beyond its natural habitats.

“The 8th/early 7th millennium site of Tel Tsaf is significant not only because of its large size but also because of the presence of storage silos on a scale not previously unearthed in the Proto-historic Near East,” said Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Dafna Langgut and Hebrew University’s Professor Yosef Garfinkel.

“The material culture of the site is remarkably rich compared to contemporary sites in the region.”

The charcoal assemblage of Tel Tsaf provides the earliest evidence of olive cultivation outside its natural distribution.

It also offers evidence for early cultivation of common fig, both dated to 7,000 years before present.

“Trees, even when burned down to charcoal, can be identified by their anatomic structure,” Dr. Langgut said.

“Wood was the ‘plastic’ of the ancient world. It was used for construction, for making tools and furniture, and as a source of energy.”

“That’s why identifying tree remnants found at archaeological sites, such as charcoal from hearths, is a key to understanding what kinds of trees grew in the natural environment at the time, and when humans began to cultivate fruit trees.”

“Tel Tsaf was a large prehistoric village in the middle Jordan Valley south of Beit She’an, inhabited between 7,200 and 6,700 years ago,” Professor Garfinkel said.

“Large houses with courtyards were discovered at the site, each with several granaries for storing crops.”

“Storage capacities were up to 20 times greater than any single family’s calorie consumption, so clearly these were caches for storing great wealth.”

“The wealth of the village was manifested in the production of elaborate pottery, painted with remarkable skill.”

“In addition, we found articles brought from afar: pottery of the Ubaid culture from Mesopotamia, obsidian from Anatolia, a copper awl from the Caucasus, and more.”

The researchers hypothesize that established horticulture contributed to more elaborate social contracts and institutions since olive oil, table olives, and dry figs were highly suitable for long-distance trade and taxation.

“The domestication of fruit trees is a process that takes many years, and therefore befits a society of plenty, rather than one that struggles to survive,” Dr. Langgut said.

“Trees give fruit only 3-4 years after being planted. Since groves of fruit trees require a substantial initial investment, and then live on for a long time, they have great economic and social significance in terms of owning land and bequeathing it to future generations — procedures suggesting the beginnings of a complex society.”

“Moreover, it’s quite possible that the residents of Tel Tsaf traded in products derived from the fruit trees, such as olives, olive oil, and dried figs, which have a long shelf life.”

“Such products may have enabled long-distance trade that led to the accumulation of material wealth, and possibly even taxation — initial steps in turning the locals into a society with a socio-economic hierarchy supported by an administrative system.”

The team’s paper appears in the journal Scientific Reports.


D. Langgut & Y. Garfinkel. 2022. 7,000-year-old evidence of fruit tree cultivation in the Jordan Valley, Israel. Sci Rep 12, 7463; doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-10743-6


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