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History & Culture 

The Olive Tree

Legend has it that, once Adam knew he was going to die, he asked the Lord for forgiveness, as originally promised. Then, an angel placed three seeds in his mouth; after his burial, the place where his remains lay resting took life in the form of a cedar, a cypress and an olive tree.

According to existing studies, the ancestor of the olive tree is the acebuche, or wild olive tree, (Olea Europea Sylvestris), from which the olive tree (Olea Europea Sativa) originated.

Historia del aceite-mercaceiAs for the origin of both, it is not particularly clear, but the oldest remains belonging to a wild olive tree were found in Israel, in the Negev Desert, and its age could be traced back to 43,000 years ago. Concerning the olive tree, though there is a certain ambiguity in regard to its beginnings, it appears to have emerged with man's transformation of the wild olive tree, which improved the species as a result of competitiveness between trees.

This would all occur in the Neolithic period, and the evolution and subsequent distribution occurred from east to west, always first in nearby areas, and then towards the western Mediterranean, extending to the rest of the world from East to West as a result of the wider dissemination of culture, commerce, conquest, religion and legend. After initially being located in Greece and Italy, cultivation subsequently scattered throughout the Mediterranean (Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and France) by way of civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, and Arabics, settling in the area of Al-Andalus, which would lead our country to becoming the world's largest producer of both olives and olive oil..

The discovery of America led to the expansion of this tree towards the new continent, beginning cultivation in Arauco, a small town of La Rioja in Argentina. On one of the ships leaving for the New World from Seville, sailed an olive tree, which served to spread this cultivation, first in Argentina, and gradually extending to other countries like Peru, Chile, Mexico, United States, Brazil, and Uruguay. The original tree was declared a general interest site in Argentina, and continues to be productive today after more than 500 years, reaching a crown diameter of 10 x 12 meters

The olive tree is surely one of the most iconic trees in history, as well as the oldest, alongside the vine, the fig tree, the palm and the date. A symbol of peace, victory, power, intelligence, fertility, immortality, wisdom, and prosperity, among others, it is the most cultivated fruit tree in the world.

It is part of the Holy Scriptures (both Christian-The Bible- and Muslim -The Koran) and is closely related to literature, with cites appearing in essential works such as The Divine Comedy, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Song of Petrarch, etc..

Today, over 11 million hectares are populated by about 1,400 million olive trees in both the Southern Hemisphere and in the North, giving rise to two completely different and distinct campaigns, one from October to March and another from March to June. Each year, between 35 and 45 million olive trees are planted in the world, which indicates an annual increase of between 150,000 and 300,000 ha.

The Oil

If we look between the years 6,000 and 4,000 a. C., man - who back then was nomadic by nature – comes into contact with olive oil through consumption of the fruit, well preserved in saltwater, by drying or direct consumption, as the ripening season is between October and March, depending on both the geographical location and the variety. This time interval is characterized by little or no maturation in other types of fruit. Once ripe, olives lose the acidity characterizing the unripe fruit, making them edible in times of scarcity and lack of supplies.

Later, possibly helped by sun drying systems or through fire, begins the extraction of water from the fruit, obtaining a higher quality food product, and thus humans incorporate this vegetable fat to their diet as a key element.

In one of the moments when the olive is drying by fire, and in a merely accidental way, there is a rupture in the skin of some fruits, generating a flame fueled by the olive's contribution in oil: this precise moment entails the discovery of olive oil by man, not as food, but as fuel, and at the same time, as protective fat, observing the oil's dermal benefits through manipulation and contact of hands with the oil.


Once oil was discovered for various uses, different from food, due to its extreme acidity and very poor quality, it is destined for mass generalized use as a liniment and cream, as well as fuel for lanterns, lamps, and torches, thereby initiating mass olive harvest and subsequent oil extraction for storage.

historia del aceite

The initial extraction system consisted in crushing olives through oppression exerted by a smaller stone on another, larger one, thereby creating a pulp of paste, from which the oil is separated by sieving through a bag or canvas basket or loom. This eventually led to an olive oil of higher organoleptic quality and therefore a directly consumable one.

From then on, and gradually, olive oil goes from being used mainly as fuel, to a second place as protector or liniment, and thirdly as food. Subsequently, new uses emerged: as a drug, lotion, aphrodisiac, etc..

Currently there is olive oil production in 45 countries, of the 55 where it is possible by geographical location. It is a prolific industry whose turnover ranges between 8,500 and 11,000 million Euros, with 30 million people directly making a living from it, integrated within seven million families.

The overall average annual production of vegetable oils and animal fats reaches 140 million tons, of which olive oil is 2.07% of this amount, while the annual per capita consumption of olive oil is 420 grams. 

Juan Vilar Hernández
Chairman, CEO and President of GEA Westfalia Separator Ibérica.
Permanent Professor on leave from the University of Jaén