'Tree of life' has Kurdish roots, study finds

February 6, 2013
A Palestinian woman from Qaryut village harvests her olive tree located in West Bank on October 28, 2009. Seen by some as emblematic of the Mediterranean landscape and cuisine, the olive tree in fact has its domesticated roots in Kurdish regions, said a study Wednesday that seeks to settle an age-old debate.

Seen by some as emblematic of the Mediterranean landscape and cuisine, the olive tree in fact has its domesticated roots in Kurdish regions, said a study Wednesday that seeks to settle an age-old debate.

Harvesting of wild olive trees called oleasters has been documented from the Near East (the area around ancient Palestine and Jordan) to Spain since the Neolithic or New Stone Age that started about 10,000 BC.

The tree then became domesticated, a process thought by some researchers to have started in the Near East about 6,000 years ago.

Other experts, though, have offered evidence for simultaneous domestication of different olive cultivars across the Mediterranean.

Now an international team of experts used genetic data, molecular dating, and climate modelling to determine that the iconic tree's roots lie in only one place—somewhat further north and east than many had thought.

"We conclude that the western Mediterranean was not a major primary centre of domestication of the ," the team wrote in the journal : Biological Sciences.

"The cradle of primary domestication of the olive tree is located in the northeastern Levant."

Libyan men pick olives in a grove in the town of Zliten, 160 kms east of the capital Tripoli, on November 11, 2011. Seen by some as emblematic of the Mediterranean landscape and cuisine, the olive tree in fact has its domesticated roots in Kurdish regions, said a study Wednesday that seeks to settle an age-old debate.

This refers to the modern-day Kurdish zone between Syria and Turkey, study co-author Guillaume Besnard of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) told AFP.

From there, the domesticated olive probably spread through the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus, westwards to Turkey, Greece, Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean "in parallel to the expansion of civilisations and human exchanges in this part of the world", said the report.

The domesticated olive tree, Olea europaea, is central to Greek, Roman and early Christian mythology, and the olive branch remains a symbol of peace today.

The believed that Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, presented the Athenians with their first domesticated olive tree, from which all others sprouted.

"The importance of the cultivated olive tree in people's lives has turned this species into a symbol of ancient, sacred literature, and the origins of this crop are often subject to controversies," the paper said.

"According to our study, the maternal origin of the majority (about 90 percent) of cultivated olives today is clearly the Near East," or roughly the modern-day Middle East, added Besnard.

"I don't think anybody will dispute that any more."

For the study, the team sampled DNA data from 534 cultivated olive types and 1,263 oleasters from 108 locations, as well as 49 trees from a sub-Saharan subspecies.

The researchers also concluded that three main branches of wild olive split from a common ancestor at least 1.5 million years ago, said Besnard.

The olive tree has been called "the tree of life" for the sustenance it provides and its non-food uses, ranging from soap to oil for lighting and sculpture.

The olive today yields some 2.4 million tonnes of oil in Europe alone, with Spain the top producer.

It is farmed as far afield as southern Africa, Australia, Japan and China.

Explore further: Millennium-old olive trees of the Iberian Peninsula are younger than expected

Related Stories

Powered by olive stones? Turning waste stones into fuel

October 29, 2008

Olive stones can be turned into bioethanol, a renewable fuel that can be produced from plant matter and used as an alternative to petrol or diesel. This gives the olive processing industry an opportunity to make valuable ...

Mission to revive Malta's olive oil production

October 15, 2012

A green-fingered ex-jeweller with a mission to revive Malta's olive oil production practically from scratch, Sam Cremona munches on a tiny black "Bidni" olive and shows it off to visitors.

Mediterranean diet enriched with olive oil may protect bone

August 15, 2012

A study to be published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (JCEM) shows consumption of a Mediterranean diet enriched with olive oil for two years is associated with increased serum ...

Recommended for you

Scientists engineer new CRISPR platform for DNA targeting

January 23, 2019

A team that includes the scientist who first harnessed the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 and other systems for genome editing of eukaryotic organisms, including animals and plants, has engineered another CRISPR system, called ...

Human mutation rate has slowed recently

January 23, 2019

Researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, and Copenhagen Zoo have discovered that the human mutation rate is significantly slower than for our closest primate relatives. This new knowledge may be important for estimates ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 06, 2013
I think the wording of this article could lead to some confusion.
I think the wording of your answer could lead to some confusion.

The only mention of Kurdistan concerns information pertaining to the geographical location of the earliest evidence that we appear to have of the existence of the wild olive.

And actually, since the myths of old tend to revere the olive, it is likely that they were introduced to this world by the Anunnaki, from Nibiru, who account for the unusually rapid development of civilization starting about 450,000 years ago, lacking any other explanation for this phenomenon and having plenty of evidence of that on hand to present to the skeptically inclined. That would explain why the olive is thought to come from an area only just north and west of that cradle of civilization.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2013

You have to be an Arab, or Turk, or Persian because whenever the word "Kurd" or "Kurdish" or "Kurdistan" appears somewhere they start attacking it.

Nobody knows how long the Kurds have been living in the area they live in today, but there is one thing that is certain: Kurds did not "arrive" in the area or move from somewhere else to that area, they have been there since they existed.

Smart Steff
not rated yet Feb 08, 2013
Wrong, debunked. 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. Olive tree originated in Near East is not true. It's originated Greece/Italy.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.