February 8, 2013

Olive domestication origins tracked to West Asia

Olive tree - Pelion, Greece
(CC by Dennis Koutou)
A new genetic study claims that the origins of olive domestication are in West Asia, more precisely at the Turkish-Syrian border (Kurdistan again?), apparently settling the doubts on whether this tree's domestic variant may have originated either in that area, the Aegean Sea basin, Southern Iberia or North Africa, or even that many independent domestications had taken place.

G. Besnard et al., The complex history of the olive tree: from Late Quaternary diversification of Mediterranean lineages to primary domestication in the northern Levant. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2833]


The location and timing of domestication of the olive tree, a key crop in Early Mediterranean societies, remain hotly debated. Here, we unravel the history of wild olives (oleasters), and then infer the primary origins of the domesticated olive. Phylogeography and Bayesian molecular dating analyses based on plastid genome profiling of 1263 oleasters and 534 cultivated genotypes reveal three main lineages of pre-Quaternary origin. Regional hotspots of plastid diversity, species distribution modelling and macrofossils support the existence of three long-term refugia; namely the Near East (including Cyprus), the Aegean area and the Strait of Gibraltar. These ancestral wild gene pools have provided the essential foundations for cultivated olive breeding. Comparison of the geographical pattern of plastid diversity between wild and cultivated olives indicates the cradle of first domestication in the northern Levant followed by dispersals across the Mediterranean basin in parallel with the expansion of civilizations and human exchanges in this part of the world.

The study was made only on chloroplast DNA, roughly equivalent to animal mtDNA, transmitted only by the "female" line (notice that olive trees, as most plants are dioic, having both sexes and also that the preferred method of agricultural reproduction today is growing new trees from stumps, i.e. cloning). However André Berville, geneticist of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research prefers to remain cautious because, in his opinion, looking only at chloroplast DNA is not enough.

"Pollen from the olive tree is wind-transported, so it can migrate long distances" he said. 

Combining both types of DNA would allow researchers to understand both how local olive tree cultivation occurred and how more long-distance changes occurred, he said. 

Secondary source: NBC News (via Pileta). 


  1. Based on etymonline.com the term "olive" and "oil" have the same origin:

    c.1200, "olive tree," from Old French olive "olive, olive tree" (13c.) or directly from Latin oliva "olive, olive tree," from Greek elaia "olive tree, olive," probably from the same Aegean language (perhaps Cretan) as Armenian ewi "oil."

    In Iranian languages there are related words to the Armenian "ewi" with the same meaning (=Oil):

    "ruwen" in Zaza (Northwestern Iranian language)
    "ron" in Sorani (Northwestern Iranian language)
    "rewn" Sarikoli language (Pamir subgroup of the Southeastern Iranian languages)
    "rwγn" Sogdian (Extinct Northeastern Iranian language)
    "ruġn"(روغن) Farsi (Southwestern Iranian language)

    It is amazing to see that in Kurdistan the first farmers obviously domesticated their direct living environment and expanded from valley to valley with this bundle of animals and plants, village life in a bundle.

    I would not be surprised if this bundle included "unwanted" animals and plants that followed this same route (e.g. Rock Pigeons?).

    1. Notice please that even if the domestication belongs to Kurdistan (which I'm not really sure as of now), Kurdish language as the other Iranian ones you mention (and also the Armenian one probably) are only late arrivals to the area (Iron Age, protohistory). You may be more on track if you look at North Caucasian languages, which may be more directly related to what was spoken in the area early on (NW Caucasian is believed to be related to Hattic, while NE Caucasian would relate to Hurro-Urartean and I'd dare say that even to Sumerian maybe). Said that, I have no idea which words were/are used for oil in said languages.

  2. I could find some words for oil/fat.

    Chechen: moħ {мохь}
    Ingush: muħ {мухь}
    Proto-Nakh: *moħ
    Archi: may ~ miy
    Kryts (proper): mäʔ
    Alyk Kryts: maʔ
    Budukh: maʔ {маъ}
    Mishlesh Tsakhur: maʔ {маъ}
    Mikik Tsakhur: maʔa
    Gelmets Tsakhur: maʔ
    Mukhad Rutul: maʔ {маъ}
    Keren Aghul: maw
    Gequn Aghul: maw
    Fite Aghul: maw
    Aghul (proper): yaʁ
    Gyune Lezgi: maqʼ
    Proto-Lezgian: *maʔˤ
    Koshan Aghul: ħul
    Northern Tabasaran: χˤul
    Southern Tabasaran: χˤul

    Hurrian: aše
    Abkhaz: a=šːˈa {ашша}
    Abaza: šːa {шша}
    Batsbi: sacxim
    Nidzh Udi: bošin=čːäyin
    Vartashen Udi: čːäin
    Proto-Kartvelian: *cem-

    Hittite: sakan
    PIE: *smeru-

    Western Chadic: *sin(-am)- 'oil'
    Central Chadic: (?) *sVmVn- 'thick'
    East Chadic: *siwan- (<*siman-?) 'oil'
    Egyptian: smy (med.) 'fat milk, cream'
    Berber: *-sim(-an)- '(liquid) fat, milk'
    Semitic: *šam(-an)- 'fat, oil'
    Akkadian: šamnu (NA also šamanu) 'oil, fat'
    Phoenician: šmn 'oil'
    Hebrew: šämän 'oil, fat'

    Proto-Turkic: *semiŕ

    Proto-Altaic: *sĕme (-a)

    It is interesting to find the word stem "(a)sem"/"(s)me" for oil/fat in so many different language families, must be an old word stem.
    However, it does not really fit to the Iranian/Armenian/Greek/Latin pattern rewin/ewi/elaia/oleum pattern.
    Only Tabasaran and Koshan Aghul language (Lezgic Northeast Caucasian) seems to be a little like that: χˤul/ħul but I don't know.

    1. Sorry I was thinking of olive, not oil. While oil and olive may be related in some languages, fat probably isn't. My bad.

  3. Olive tree originated in Greece ( Greece and Italy was once together - look at the geography ). 40 million years ago the earthquake pushed Italy away from Greece. They found in Greece olive leaf and dated 60.000 years ago and in Italy, the olive tree was found fossilized near Livorno and dated 20 million years ago.

    1. We are talking here of olive tree domestication. If you read at least the abstract or what I wrote around it, you'll see that the wild species was restricted in the Ice Age to a few scattered pockets and anyone could have been the main source of domestication. But genetics of modern olive trees suggest a West Asian first domestication however, according to this study anyhow.


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