Discovery Shows Italian Olive Oil to Be 700 Years Older Than We Thought

A Sicilian jar contained oil residue dating back to the Bronze Age.

By Ethan L. Johns
May 31, 2018

Image: Dusan Zidar/Shutterstock

Olive oil might be the cornerstone of Mediterranean Italy’s cuisine, but it is believed by historians that the large-scale production of the spicy green liquid originated much further to the east, nearly 8,000 years ago, before being introduced to the peninsula via Greece around 1100 B.C. A new discovery, announced this week, might be changing that timeline.

Analysis of large ceramic pots, which were found in Sicily, has found chemical signatures of olive oil residue, pushing back the first recorded date of “systematic” production in Italy by nearly 700 years.

The research, published this month in the journal Analytical Methods, was conducted on three containers originally discovered in the 1990s on an archaeological dig at Castelluccio. The largest of the ceramic pots was oval in shape, measured in at about 3 feet 6 inches from top to bottom—an odd shape—and featured design that was typical of other Sicilian pottery dating back to the Early Bronze age at the end of the third millennium B.C. and beginning of the second millennium B.C.

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Inside both the oblong pot and each of the two basins, the researchers found traces of oleic and linoleic acids—telltale signs of olive oil.

Previously, the oldest proof of olive oil in Italy had been traced back to the Copper Age, around 1100 B.C. to 1000 B.C.

“The results obtained with the three samples from Castelluccio become the first chemical evidence of the oldest olive oil in Italian prehistory, pushing back the hands of the clock for the systematic olive oil production by at least 700 years,” said Davide Tanasi, lead researcher of the study.

While it turns out that prehistoric Italians had plenty of olive oil, unfortunately they didn’t have unlimited breadsticks. Che peccato!

Fan of very old food and drink? Last year, scientists found the oldest wine in the world.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns