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History of almonds in the Eastern Mediterranean

Humanity's interest in the agricultural, culinary, and nutritional value of almonds goes back at least to the dawn of recorded history where there is evidence of humans gathering nuts for food.
 
The almond traces its botanical origin to the deserts and lower mountains slopes of central and southwest Asia. It is thought to have evolved from the same primitive stock as the peach but took a different genetic route millions of years ago when the land rose up to form the mountains that separate Central Asia from China and Mongolia. According to accepted theory, the peach evolved eastward into China at lower elevations in regions of higher humidity, while the almond spread along the fringes of the deserts and lower mountain slopes to the West, developing many subspecies along the way.

A recent archaeological dig in Upper Galilee, Israel, found wild almonds from 780,000 years ago among the seven species of edible fruits with hard shells found on the site. Hunter-gatherers discovered that these hardy trees and shrubs sometimes produced sweet, edible kernels that had many uses and traveled well.
 
By 4,000 BC, almonds were cultivated and in use in Mediterranean civilizations.
 
Almonds have been found in the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos in Crete and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada, on the same island. The Romans, who were fond of them, indicated the direction from which they had come to them by calling them the "Greek nut". Almonds may have accompanied Alexander the Great's warriors from Persia or Egypt to their homes in Greece. However they arrived, it was around the time (350-323 BC) of Alexander's conquests, and that intense trading of almonds spread westwards to Greece and beyond. Except for Spain, which is the second largest almond producer after California, other Mediterranean countries no longer play an important role in the international almond trade. However small-scale almond producers in the Eastern Mediterranean, most of who date their almond culture to ancient times, are still important to sustainable agriculture.
 
In our presentation we have given an historical overview of the culinary and dietary role of almonds in Greece by comparing and contrasting three periods: ancient Greece, the immediate postwar era as seen through the eyes of a Rockefeller Foundation study on development, and modern Greece.


K. Lapsey, Almond Board of California, USA
J. Vardalas, Rutgers University, USA

 

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